As Mason Lee and his sister Isabella tossed a red, yellow and white plastic beach ball to each other, they counted out loud as they caught it in the air. Counting to 30, they could feel their breathing increase and their heartbeat quicken, which was the point.
As elementary students felt their heart rates increase, they looked at their wrists, where they wore heart rate monitors that they helped assemble to track their movements.
“It’s really fun – I love all the activities we do,” said 10-year-old Mason.
The siblings were two of more than a dozen fourth- through sixth-grade students who took part in a biomedical engineering session during the first week of this summer’s engineering experience camp at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The week-long camp exposes children to one of the five departments of the UIC College of Engineering, which operates the camp, each day. Students can learn about biomedical engineering one day, then chemical engineering the next, followed by computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical and industrial engineering the rest of the week, Zhinan Wang said, clinical assistant professor in the Richard and Loan Hill Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“Every day they meet new tutors, they go to the new space and overall, after a full week of experience, they will have a really good insight into what engineering is and what the big difference between different engineering departments and majors,” Wang said.
Wang is hosting the camp, which began July 11 and will run through July 29, with graduate students and other faculty members. Students in grades seven through ninth participate in the second week of the program, and students in grades 10 through 12 participate in the final week.
The program started in 2019 but had to be interrupted in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. This year was the biggest of the camp, with nearly 300 students enrolled, Wang said. The program is self-supporting through tuition paid by parents and guardians, with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation.
On a recent visit to UIC’s Science and Engineering Laboratories East Building, the sound of laughter and high-energy learning filled the hallways.
“They are very energetic and they want to take things apart and we encourage them. We let them know how to put them back [together]. It’s part of the program,” Wang said. “We try to encourage all departments to emphasize their uniqueness.”
The hope is to get students to understand the differences between different disciplines and to be able to express to their parents why they prefer one discipline over another.
Maloo Lozada said her son Lorenzo, a sixth-grade student, has signed up for the camp and she plans to enroll her brother, a high school freshman. She was so interested in the camp that she told her friends and family about the program, including some from out of town, because she felt it was a good way for them to learn about the different types of engineering fields.
“The goal was to expose them to these different types of engineering so they knew if that was what they were interested in. It’s a very valuable experience, especially in their age bracket,” Lozada said.
Hermes Lan, 9, and Patrick Neiheisel, 11, worked together in the electrical engineering section to make electrical circuits they would later need to create a mini robot and a lightsaber. Hermès and Patrick used paper clips, putty and wiring.
“They act like a conductor, and we made this special light connected by these wires and clips,” Hermès said. “So far I like computers, chemistry and electricity [engineering] because they are fun and interesting.
Patrick said his preference was for chemical engineering because he was always drawn to chemistry and used chemical science kits to learn more about the discipline.
“We learned today that electricity can only move one way, and robots can do a lot of amazing things, like drive cars and perform surgery,” Patrick said.
In the mechanical engineering section, 11-year-old Lily Walsh designed and created keychains using a 3D printer. She was looking forward to using the same 3D printer to create a toy car that she and the other students would equip with an electric motor. She said she saw herself becoming a mechanical engineer when she grew up.
“I love 3D printing,” Lily said. “So far this is my favorite; it would be a very fun career to do.