On a sticky summer Friday, in the cool air-conditioning of Rice’s Humanities Building, a group of middle and high schoolers placed a comic strip they’d written in Spanish onto an overhead projector. The strip showed how many blocks you could place on the end of a table, before the force of physics caused the blocks to topple.
The bilingual presentation was one aspect of the week-long Tapia Camp in Physics. Offered through Rice’s Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity, the camp is one of several offered by the center throughout the summer (the others focus on math and computer science, and there’s a special camp for students in the top three percent of their classes).
The students, who are in grades eight through 12, come from schools all over the country. Nearly 90 percent of the participants have their fees paid for through Title I (monies for enrichment for underrepresented youth) or Title III (bi-lingual education monies; students have the option to attend the camp in a bilingual English/Spanish setting) funding. They spend a week on the Rice campus, working in teams on two projects they present to their peers and judges at the end of the camp session. Winners receive a trophy and bragging rights. Leading up to the Friday presentation session, they learn about effective communication, a little bit of graphic arts and a lot of engineering and math.
“We want them to be able to see that they can use math and science skills they already have,” said Paul Hand, Rice assistant professor of computational and applied mathematics. “But at a more abstract level, we want them to leave being able to communicate anything they want effectively, even if it’s something technical.”
For the last three years, the summer Tapia camps have given underrepresented students a front-row seat in learning what it means to have a career in math or science. All of these students have a demonstrated interest in those subjects, but many of them don’t have the exposure to professionals or academics, outside their classroom teachers, who can show them what they can do with these STEM skills.
Students arrive on campus on a Sunday afternoon, check in and receive room assignments. That evening, they take part in a scavenger hunt that helps them to learn the Rice campus. Beginning on Monday, they have morning and afternoon home-room sessions, where they are divided into teams of three or four to work on the two projects they’ve been assigned for the week. Friday culminates with an elimination round in the morning and a final presentation round in the afternoon, where the winners are determined.
“They have to demonstrate that they know the math and science,” said Hand. “And they’re judged not only on that, but on their visual and oral communication as well.”
Founded by Richard Tapia, University Professor and the Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering, the program began as a collaboration with the Houston Independent School District, in which students in the top five percent of their classes were invited to campus for the week-long sessions. Over the last three years, it’s grown to embrace students from across the country, and added a component for teachers. The educators are given a week-long boot camp in project-based learning and serve as judges for the student projects.
“There’s a lot of excitement about the sessions,” said Jaimie Rodriguez, camp director. “We focus not so much on the science itself, but on the practice of science: research, presentations, working in groups. These are skills these students will need in life. And the teachers who take our project-based learning sessions say they find a real value in learning how to evaluate students and how to design group projects.”
The teacher component has been so successful, said Rodriguez, that next year, the Tapia Center plans to open up the sessions to humanities teachers as well.
The central focus, however, remains on the students. All of them are bright and curious and show great aptitude for STEM study. But many of them, said Rodriguez, haven’t had anyone challenge them on their knowledge.
“With us, they learn how to effectively communicate not only what they know, but how they arrived at the conclusions. The goal is to help them help someone who doesn’t have their background understand these concepts.”
Throughout the summer, nearly 400 students participate in the camps, and Rodriguez said that sessions are already being booked and purchased for next year. While the sessions may only be a week long, Tapia said the results are longer lasting.
“For one week the students live on the campus of a world-class university, hear from world-class scientists concerning their science and their story, receive project based instruction working with curricula designed by world-class scientists. They hone their presentation skills and leave Rice excited, motivated, and believing that a career in science just may be a good choice.”