Wayne State and Verizon team up to bring summer STEM learning to metro Detroit youth
Youth summer program organizers across the country were forced to pivot from their typical plans for in-person learning and recreation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Celestine Aguwa, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at Wayne State University, was among those tasked with finding creative ways to offer an enriching, yet practical, program in a virtual format.
Aguwa directs Wayne State's Summer Community-Based STEM Outreach Program (SOP), which engages middle and high school students through hands-on STEM-related activities. Conducted on Saturdays in July each of the last four years, the series aims to close the opportunity gap for young people from underserved and underrepresented communities in metro Detroit.
"This year's virtual program was the first for the team," said Aguwa. "There was an increase in students' participation, and it was a huge success."
Many of these students have limited access to engineering and technology programming. A $25,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation was instrumental in securing resources to execute the online program and making SOP accessible to students and effective in furthering their college and career readiness. The program is free of charge for the families, so external funding is essential.
"The Summer Outreach Program focuses on enabling middle and high school students for a better-educated workforce," said Aguwa. "Grants from companies like Verizon make this possible."
"Verizon was proud to partner with Wayne State on this incredible program. All children should have access to a quality STEM education and the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills to thrive in the digital age," said Brianna Ellison, manager of local government affairs and community engagement at Verizon. "Wayne State's Summer Community-Based STEM Outreach Program made hands-on learning at home approachable and fun for young people and their parents."
One unique aspect of SOP is that it requires parent participation, with the belief that exposing parents to STEM concepts while working alongside their children helps reinforce class content and better equips parents to support students with homework and projects during the academic year. Aguwa noted that this method also helps keep the students focused and actively participating.
Students were guided through a project-based curriculum with various modules by Wayne State faculty and graduate students, as well as representatives from Verizon. One week focused on statistical data analysis. Another featured a course on artificial intelligence and autonomous driving, as students programmed their own AI models while learning how automakers such as Toyota and Tesla use AI for their self-driving vehicles.
In another module, students built and programmed a language translation app. Ellison and Michael Davis, a solutions architect at Verizon, served as guest lecturers and walked students through the finer points of the emerging 5G technology.
Group projects included building such devices as a soda fountain machine or a hydraulic-powered arm. Team building was an important learning outcome of the program, along with honing valuable cognition, presentation and communication skills.
Instructors used a variety of STEM-related assets to make the 2020 version of SOP as robust as possible. YouTube videos were valuable explainers for challenging concepts, Zoom breakout sessions afforded opportunities to work in smaller groups, and virtual tours of such locations as the Toyota Research Center and the Discovery Education Center gave students a glimpse of what the future may hold for them.
"We had assessment sessions at the end of the camp using Kahoot, and this had the students competing for the highest points," said Aguwa.
While Aguwa and his team had to overcome a lack of in-person interaction, as well as a few technical glitches, they were encouraged by some of the positive effects of moving to a virtual setting.
"The online program reached a much larger group of students that, pre-pandemic, may not have been able to attend," said Aguwa. "Also, parents did not have to drive long distances to the program's location."
Exit surveys indicated that students rated their experiences as rewarding, and 81% said that their interest in STEM had increased as a result of their SOP participation. Parental feedback was similarly favorable.
The program's primary objective was to help close the skills gap and prepare students to meet the needs of industry by incorporating STEM lessons into real-world scenarios. Aguwa believes they are achieving this goal as SOP continues to grow.
"The students learned and developed skills that will give them an advantage above their peers," he said. "The global pandemic has disrupted numerous activities. Nonetheless, with the aid of technology, we ensured that students and parents could learn and become fully equipped with the necessary tools for the future workforce."