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Science in the Summer Activities Let Children ‘Be an Engineer’



A buzzer activated by a button constructed of brads and aluminum foil. A hand-shaped device operated by wooden skewers that easily grabs a piece of paper. All are projects engineered by children taking part in a longstanding summer enrichment program with activities that aim to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

GSK Science in the Summer returned this year to fulfill its mission of showing elementary school-age children that they too can be scientists and engineers through hands-on activities at camps, libraries and classrooms – and with activity kits that they can complete from home.

The 2021 theme – “Be an Engineer” – is the most recent installment in a program that has grown, adapted and thrived throughout its 35-year history. Founded by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in the Philadelphia area in 1986, the program was held regionally until 2015, when AAAS oversaw a nationwide expansion.

Today, the program, which continues to be sponsored by GSK and administered by Philadelphia science museum The Franklin Institute, reaches upwards of 28,000 children in 26 states and Washington, D.C. Normally, in-person programming is held in partnership with museums and scientific organizations like AAAS, which administers the program in underserved communities throughout Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia in partnership with local municipalities, libraries, a small museum and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.

In 2020, the program went fully virtual throughout the D.C. area in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought hands-on chemistry activities to children to complete at home. In 2021, it returns with a hybrid approach. Several partnering sites are hosting in-person or hybrid activities, while others are holding virtual camps or distributing activity kits for at-home use. The curriculum, made up of four activities representing four different engineering disciplines, was developed by The Franklin Institute and the activity kits assembled by local volunteers—mainly middle-school science students.

“Involving the young volunteers who serve as kit preparers, classroom helpers in the in-person sessions, and hopefully big-kid role models is an important part of the program. Many of the volunteers come from the same communities as the elementary-school children who participate, so I see this as an unexpected, but welcome, benefit,” said AAAS program director Betty Calinger.  

The in-person instructors (mainly secondary science teachers) receive a modest honorarium but return each year because they like what they do: engaging young children in activity-based science. Jessica Baker, a high school teacher of forensics, anatomy and chemistry in Frederick, Maryland, and a four-year veteran of Science in the Summer, led several groups of elementary schoolers through the activities as part of Camp Rainbow, offered by the City of Gaithersburg in Maryland.

Baker first got participants excited about the electrical engineering activity: building a circuit using batteries, wire and tape. The activity was bound to be a popular one. After all, it makes a lot of noise, Baker noted.

Participants weren’t disappointed. “Oh, that’s so annoying!” one child said gleefully as a cacophony of high-pitched buzzes rang out once the circuits were successfully connected. Assisted by Baker and a group of camp counselors who circulated throughout the room, they next undertook the challenge of crafting a button out of materials like aluminum foil and cardboard that would allow their buzzer to be operated by just one finger – much like a hospital patient might need, Baker told the children.

This real-world application required trial and error. When one participant commented that he needed to research and try out a few different solutions, Baker responded: “That’s definitely what scientists and engineers do.”

Another class completed the biomedical engineering module, in which they designed and created a hand-shaped reaching tool that might assist someone with limited mobility, cutting out cardboard hands supported and maneuvered by materials like pipe cleaners, rubber bands and string. The other activities – an introduction to structural engineering through bridge-building and an environmental engineering activity in which children use clay to design a system that prevents rainwater from flooding a playground – were theirs to take home.

“Science in the Summer reinforces the science content that kids are learning in the classroom through active learning experiences,” said Calinger. “This is so important during the pandemic. Children have been learning science through teacher demonstrations, computer simulations, and videos. Having the chance to use the materials to explore, test and find solutions to meet the challenges outlined in the curriculum is so important.”  

Added Calinger, “An extra benefit is that the at-home kits allow children to involve family members in their investigations. Everyone can Be an Engineer!”

According to GSK, Science in the Summer aims to encourage children to consider careers in science and engineering, think scientifically and have fun – outcomes immediately evident in the room.

When one teenage counselor commented on wanting to study forensic science, an elementary school participant chimed in: “I love science, too!”

Details about camp signups and activity kit pickups in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia are available on the AAAS website. Learn more about activities around the country at the GSK Science in the Summer website.

[Associated image: Neil Orman/AAAS]


Andrea Korte

Neil Orman

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