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Growing young minds through STEM

June 27, 2012

Working to address the nation’s need for greater educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? There’s an app for that.

A student works on his mobile app at the Drake camp

Iowa middle school students spent five days at Drake University in June learning to develop simple applications for the Android mobile device. Students at the inaugural “Let’s Build an App for That” camp used the help of Drake professors, free software, and video tutorials to design games similar to Whack-a-Mole and Pong, among others.

Twelve students participated in the camp, which is likely to repeat next year; more than 40 students were on a wait list to attend.

“It was a fun way to change the perceptions and attitudes many young people have about computer science programming,” says Timothy Urness, assistant professor of computer science. “In part, the camp is designed to target students while they are still impressionable and get them to think that technology can be interdisciplinary, fun, useful, and relevant to their daily lives.”

The camp is part of a broader initiative at Drake to promote engagement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, which have been identified as high-need areas in K–12 education and the United States’ future workforce.

National statistics indicate that young people are becoming less interested—and less proficient—in STEM fields. In 2009, just 34 percent of Iowa eighth-graders scored as proficient in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a uniform assessment given to students in the United States in grades four, eight, and 12.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad in May named Drake a regional network hub that will promote STEM education and economic development across Iowa. The University is now one of six hubs in the state and will work with business, education institutions, nonprofit groups, and others in the region to pursue STEM goals.

As part of the hub designation, Drake will provide salary assistance, office space, technology, and other resources to a STEM Advocate who will keep an office based in Drake’s Cowles Library. Drake will aid the advocate in assembling an advisory board comprised of members from local nonprofit groups, higher education institutions, media outlets, governmental organizations, businesses, and other influential entities. More information about the state STEM initiative is available at www.iowastem.gov.

Another summer activity for middle school students, the Wide World of Science Summer Camp, is scheduled for July at Drake. That camp, hosted by Associate Professor of Psychology Maria Valdovinos, targets middle school students who are typically underrepresented in the sciences—primarily girls and ethnic minorities.

Campers will be involved in various activities representing a range of science disciplines through inquiry-based activities. Drake School of Education students seeking endorsements in science will lead the camp, which will run July 9–14.

Both camps were funded through grants from Iowa State University as part of the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, a group dedicated to coordinating and improving Iowa’s future in aerospace science and technology and to stimulating aerospace research, education, and outreach activities throughout Iowa.