Summer Programs Create Pathways for High School Students
Firing water rockets. Building microscopes and duct tape canoes. Sending images over radio. These hands-on learning activities are part of two summer programs designed to give high school students an early perspective on what it’s really like to study at the College of Engineering. The two college-wide summer programs are Summer Engineering Academy and teacher training for Engineering 102 High School.
SEA is a camp for rising high school sophomores through new graduates. It spans up to six weeks and gives each student the chance to choose from themed modules, such as Engineering our Health.
“We’re offering young people a chance to explore focused intellectual interests and do something they may not have the chance to do in high school,” said Jim Baygents, associate dean for academic affairs.
High school teachers receive instructor training for Engineering 102 High School, a program that allows students to take the college’s introductory engineering course and earn UA credit while still in high school. After preparing in the summer, participants teach the class throughout the school year at their respective high schools.
SEA: Making New Connections
Pre-COVID, SEA was offered solely as a residential program. The camp was canceled in 2020 and returned in 2021 as a virtual program. This summer, it was offered as a hybrid program with virtual bundles and single-day in-person options. Around 150 students participated, with many signing up for multiple modules. Over 230 enrollments were recorded this year, the highest number in the program’s history of more than 30 years. College leaders hope to offer a variety of options again in 2023.
SEA’s curriculum helps students apply math and science knowledge, Baygents said.
“In Summer Engineering Academy, they can see the connections between what they’ve learned and engineering,” he said.
Twin sisters Audrey and Sydney Aune, juniors at BASIS Tucson North High School, attended two in-person SEA days. Both are considering careers in engineering and wanted to learn more about specialties and which preparatory classes to take.
For Sydney, who leans toward aerospace engineering, the best and most surprising part of SEA was seeing and working with the college’s equipment. This includes the wind tunnels the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department uses for testing hypersonic vehicles at speeds of Mach 5 – five times the speed of sound – or faster.
“It was informative and really cool,” she said.
Teacher Education: A Two-Way Street
Around 380 students will take Engineering 102 for UA credit this school year, and another 200 will take the class for high school credit. They’ll be instructed by high school teachers who trained this summer at a program that hosted 33 teachers from 32 schools from the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas, plus one in Yuma, Arizona, and one in California.
Benjamin Davis, who teaches physics, engineering and upper-level math courses at Sahuaro High School in Tucson, has been part of the program for 11 years. He’s found the teacher community to be a valuable resource.
“It’s a good group of teachers. They’re really like family,” Davis said.
The training encourages participants to develop professional networks and engage one another in dialogue, Baygents said. And college leadership learns from the teachers.
“It’s a two-way street. These instructors are experts in working with that age group, which has some overlap with the incoming first-year students,” he said.
Davis, for example, has served on panel discussions about preparing students for the college’s annual Solar Oven Throw Down and delivered presentations on technical reading strategies.
“They want to include our voices and our expertise,” he said.
Pathways to Engineering Careers
One important reason the College of Engineering, as well as individual departments and faculty members, offer outreach programs to high school students is to help young people envision a pathway to becoming an engineer, according to Baygents.
“Making it clear how to gain entrée is something we in higher ed can do to help our fellow educators in K-12. I think that needs to start before students make it to the end of their senior year,” he said.
In Davis’ years of teaching Engineering 102 High School, he’s known many students who became engineers but might not have pursued the field without being introduced to it in high school. He keeps a printed email hanging on his classroom wall from a former student who worked as an engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Davis read from her message: “People ask me how I got involved and excited about this field. I always say it was my wonderful high school physics teacher.”
Davis believes the opportunity to work with college-level material in a familiar, low-stress environment is one key to the program’s success.
“This class meets kids where they need to be met,” he said. “We can help them get a few skills down that might be harder to get on their own in college, but that will help them as soon as they step in that college environment.”
For those students who are committed to studying engineering in college, an advantage of attending SEA is that it can provide a head start on deciding how to refine their focus, said Baygents.
That was the case for Winona Esher. The SEA counselor, now a junior majoring in optical sciences and engineering, attended the camp before both of her final two years of high school. At the time, she wanted to learn more about mechanical engineering. But optics, which she didn’t know anything about, was presented the same week.
“The demonstrations were really inspiring. I thought it was magic technology,” said Esher.
Initially captivated by the study of light, Esher is now interested in telescope design. She may seek a career with NASA after graduating. For now, she’s excited she had the chance to work with SEA campers and answer questions about preparing for college and the field of optical sciences.
“I wanted to instill the inspiration that the counselors instilled in me when I went to camp,” she said.