Inspiring STEM stars

Summer camps that focus on STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — aren’t exactly new.

But this year, Twin Cities families will have even more choices for kids interested in STEM activities.

Engineering for Kids opened up its first Minnesota franchise in Minneapolis in December and will be offering its first day camps this spring and summer by partnering with private and public schools and community centers.

Virginia-based Engineering for Kids — founded in 2009 by a science teacher who was frustrated with the STEM offerings for her two kids — now has locations around the world and offers not just camps, but also workshops, clubs and birthday parties for ages 4 to 14.

Programming includes instruction in many areas of engineering, including aerospace, electrical, mechanical, environmental, chemical, industrial, civil and marine, plus LEGO robotics and electronic game-design classes.

Engineering for Kids Minneapolis owners Armando and Ria Mojica opened their local franchise after they returned to Minnesota with their three kids after living in the Philippines.

They noticed that the typical art, sports and outdoors summer camps didn’t seem appealing to their children. 

“There wasn’t a lot of super-technical stuff that was interesting or fun for them,” Armando Mojica said.

He and his wife had been exploring the idea of starting a home-based business when they discovered the fast-growing Engineering for Kids program.


More experimenting

What initially struck Armando Mojica about the Engineering for Kids program was how fun the lessons were. The Minnesota native studied engineering in college, but found it too teacher-centric and formula-based to be enjoyable. (He got an economics degree instead.) 

But the Engineering for Kids model is different, Mojica said. Only about 10 percent of the time in any given unit is spent 

on instruction. The rest of the time, kids are testing out ideas and solving problems on their own — all in a fun environment designed to encourage interest in STEM fields.

“If you introduce engineering to kids and make it fun for them, it inspires the next generation of engineers,” he said.

Mojica said the Engineering for Kids programming can also help bridge the gap between boys and girls in STEM education. 

Not enough young girls are exposed to engineering through clubs or at school, Mojica said. 

He hopes introducing them to engineering at a young age might help increase the ratio of female engineers in the workforce.

Many of the girls in the program find they’re just as capable as the boys. 

At a recent workshop in Maple Grove, a team of 8- and 9-year-old girls went head to head in a LEGO robotics challenge against a team of boys two years older. 

Their goal was to build a robot using LEGO robotics materials that could knock their competitor’s robot to the ground — like a sumo wrestling match. 

The boys tricked out their robot with spinning arms and a scorpion tail. The girls chose a simple design with a bulldozer arm on the front. It took them only about three seconds to knock the boys’ robot flat. 


A national reputation

Engineering for Kids, so far, has franchises in 32 different states and a dozen countries. The company’s first national franchise opened in Portland, Ore., in 2012. Today there are 117 locations. 

This year, the popular program will add at least 50 new locations, said Mike Cavanaugh, vice president of marketing for Engineering for Kids. 

Cavanaugh said even students who have a hard time with STEM concepts in the school are getting excited about STEM fields thanks to Engineering for Kids’ hands-on instructional techniques.

“Where they may, in the classroom, struggle or, in testing, think they’re not good at math, they may excel in our programs,” he said.


Real-life and imaginative skills

Camp offerings will vary at different locations this summer, but Engineering for Kids has dozens of unique programs that focus different aspects of engineering tailored to different age groups: Junior engineers are ages 4-6, apprentice engineers are ages 7-11 and master engineers are ages 12-14.

Campers learn to apply engineering principles in real-life settings as well as more imaginative environments. 

In one camp, young engineers will program a robot to perform intricate surgeries using simulated organs and tissue. They’ll dress up in scrubs to perform the surgery. 

In another camp called Medieval Defense, kids will learn how basic engineering principles helped in the design of fortresses, cannons and catapults in the Middle Ages. 

They’ll defend their fortresses from attack while using marine, civil and mechanical engineering skills. 

College students and recent graduates who have studied education — plus university students who have pursued STEM fields and have an interest in teaching — will lead the classes. So far, Mojica’s recruited camp leaders from the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas.


Not boxed in

In all classes, kids learn to use engineering-design processes to solve problems. They’re encouraged to test and re-test ideas — and go back to the drawing board if something doesn’t work. 

This gives kids space to solve problems rather than simply memorizing formulas and answers, Mojica said.

“They are not boxed into one way of doing something,” he said.

Even if kids don’t continue their interest in engineering, they’ve got problem-solving skills they can put to use in the classroom and their lives.

“If anything else, it teaches them to think,” Mojica said. “We are not giving them a class where they have to memorize stuff. We’re giving them a problem, giving them the means to determine the solution and it’s up to them to actually determine it.”