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Summer camps engineered for a virtual world

a young girl building with LEGO

A total of 24 weeklong K-12 camps took place during the 2020 Fulton Virtual Summer Academy. In one camp, participants were tasked with modeling unique LEGO creations in the LEGO Explore camp. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Dodson

August 26, 2020

During a typical summer, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering welcome hundreds of K–12 students to Arizona State University’s Tempe and Polytechnic campuses for the Fulton Summer Academy. The academy is a series of summer camps designed to help pique interest in various STEM topics.

This year, the academy offered a total of 24 weeklong sessions — with one notable difference when it became clear that COVID-19 was not going to allow for a typical schedule of camps.

“We were initially planning in-person camps and had spent considerable time organizing, registering and scheduling everything,” said Laura Grosso, senior coordinator of engineering outreach and recruitment. “But (that planning) came to a complete halt in March.”

Several parents began to ask what options there would be for the summer programs, prompting camp organizers to evaluate how they could effectively offer the sessions using Zoom.

The team’s planning resulted in the first Fulton Virtual Summer Academy.

Grosso says she initially had doubts they would be able to create an engaging virtual camp experience, but she knew that they would figure it out. She contacted one of the camp counselors, Tim Knorr, who is a middle school STEM teacher for the Creighton School District in Phoenix.

“With the pandemic this year, summer was tough. The virtual LEGO camp helped keep the kids engaged in learning activities as well as have fun. On the second day, my 7-year-old said, ‘I’m exhausted! That was so much fun!'" —Jennifer Dodson, mother of two LEGO Explore campers

“I asked Tim if he might be able to help create the content for LEGO camps and then lead the live Zoom sessions,” said Grosso. “He happily accepted the challenge. Our small team was joined by Claire Jordan, a recent graduate student from mechanical engineering, who, along with Tim, brought the magic to the camps.”

Jordan and Knorr used their creativity to quickly develop the educational content for the sessions, which ranged from LEGO building camps to 3D modeling camps to Java, Python and Scratch coding camps.

“The LEGO camps involved more logistics than I would advise anyone to take on, but they were highly successful,” said Grosso. “More than 100 children attended the (LEGO) camp during the first two weeks in June with more campers joining throughout the summer.”

The LEGO Explore camp was developed for rising first through third graders, meaning some campers were barely out of kindergarten. Even so, Grosso remarked how adept the kids were with technology and Zoom, and how they took the transition in stride.

“It also speaks to the incredible ability of the instructors, who not only teach a camp, but teach it on Zoom and still keep it engaging and fun,” said Grosso. “Tim not only did a live Zoom session in the morning and another in the afternoon for a daily check-in, he also worked the help desk for each camp and prerecorded himself building the daily LEGO challenge with the kids. That way, if they missed camp because of school, they could still build with him at a later time that worked for their schedule.”

“My two sons, ages 12 and 10, participated in four of the Fulton (Virtual Summer Academy) camps this summer. They really enjoyed the programs. They would excitedly show my husband and me what they had learned during the day. While I think many parents are battling to keep their kids off electronics so much, this was a great use of technology to keep them connected and learning while my husband and I were both working from home.” —Tami Coronella, director of student success and engagement in the Fulton Schools and mother of two campers

Knorr personally created every LEGO structure that was not a commercially available design, and participating students were sent every brick and piece they needed to recreate his designs. Grosso had to order the LEGO Technic bricks and pieces from the LEGO warehouse in Denmark because the components were difficult to source during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My student worker and I put together packages of specific LEGO bricks and pieces that were going to be used for the building projects each day of camp, and then mailed them off to each camper prior to the camp’s first day,” said Grosso.  

The 3D-printing camp sessions were open to middle school students who used the Tinkercad program and high schoolers who used Fusion 360. Beyond introducing the campers to 3D-printing software tools, the printing camps encouraged participants to start applying an entrepreneurial mindset. They were asked to develop a new product that could solve a problem or fill a need, then present their 3D designs using a “Shark Tank”-type pitch.

For fun, students in the 3D modeling camps also created a keychain design that was printed in 3D labs on ASU’s campus. And since the process was livestreamed, kids could watch their designed items being made in real time.

“Although we were very limited on time to develop these camps, we were able to pivot smoothly to a virtual experience for kids of many ages,” said Grosso.

Students from 18 states, including some as far away as Georgia, New York, Tennessee and Massachusetts, were able to participate in the new Fulton Virtual Summer Academy. Grosso received positive feedback from these far-flung participating families, including out-of-state ASU alumna Kelly Connolly, who was excited to have her son be a part of these camps from her alma mater.

“I read about the camps in the alumni magazine and thought it was great that they were being conducted virtually, especially since we do not live near campus,” said Connolly. “My son participated in both the 3D printing and Python coding camps. He really enjoyed the camps and working with kids from other parts of the country. The camps piqued his interest in these areas, as well as in the Fulton Schools, and hopefully we’ll have another Sun Devil in the family in a few years!”

The new platform also helped organizers accommodate additional camp sessions to meet the demand for more sessions. Grosso’s student worker Zach Smith, a second-year computer science major, helped the team by developing a Java programming class himself as parents requested more sessions of the coding camps.

“During uncertain times, these LEGO classes have been a delight! My daughter is 7 years old, going into second grade. She loved these classes. I would highly recommend these for any kids who like LEGO. It was a great value!” —Emily Beharano, mother of a LEGO Explore camper

“Developing the summer camps on a platform like Zoom, which none of us had much experience with prior to March, challenged us to be creative and adaptable, and we exceeded our own expectations,” said Grosso. “We are planning more virtual camps during the coming months to provide kids with some engineering enrichment to add to their school-year studies.” 

Those future virtual camps will build on the success of the Fulton Virtual Summer Academy.

“We know schedules are so difficult to predict right now with different school and parent work requirements,” said Grosso. “So we did absolutely everything we could to make these camps as enjoyable and accessible for the kids, and we will do so again with future camps.”

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