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CampBioE brings Bioengineering to the Hill District

This Pitt-led summer camp introduces STEM concepts to underrepresented campers in elementary and middle school

20230713_111604Not many summer camps have chicken leg dissections on the program schedule – but not many summer camps are like the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering’s CampBioE. 

CampBioE introduces campers who mostly come from underrepresented communities, referred to as CampBioE “scholars,” to STEM concepts in a unique way that will hopefully engage them well after the weeklong camp ends. It explores bioengineering and regenerative medicine through new technologies, experimental strategies and ethical considerations. 

The camp enrolls elementary, middle, and high school students, but intentionally started the 2023 summer with Jumpstart CampBioE, an elementary-level program. Including students at this age is a novel initiative of Assistant Professor Katrina Knight, who aims to intrigue children with STEM at a young age. 

“When I became faculty I wanted to extend the camp – traditionally it was [for] high school students, some middle schoolers, but I wanted to extend it to elementary school, so I created Jumpstart CampBioE,”20230710_135239 Knight said. “The vision is to get them interested early in STEM with the hope that they will go on to college or into some STEM-based career.”

The program has been offered since 2007. This summer, it was held free of cost at Pitt’s Hill District Community Engagement Center (CEC). Marlo Hall, Outreach Coordinator for the CEC, coordinated the CEC’s summer camp programming and emphasized the center’s focus on long-term engagement. 

“Our programming is across a lifespan – youth is an entry point, and as they get through to high school we have programs that are more directly involved with campus,” Hall said. “We really want to provide a way for students to excel, and I believe CampBioE is a great asset in providing students an opportunity to explore their interests and potentially take them further.” 

CampBioE is led by both Knight and founding director Steven Abramowitch, Associate Chair for Culture and Community and W.K. Whiteford Professor of Bioengineering. Abramowitch, who has run the camp for 13 years, is always excited to see how passionate the scholars are about STEM-based skills and careers. 

“It's inspiring to see young kids at this age, especially in middle school, talking about what their career plans are,” Abramowitch said. “We have one camper who wants to be a surgeon, another who wants to code, and you kind of see their future taking shape which is really inspiring to see.” 

Along with faculty, CampBioE also employs undergraduate bioengineering students at the camp- including third-year student Sofia Bear. Bear, who attended the camp when she was in middle school and returned this year as a student intern, worked on lesson plans, laid out programming, and assisted the professors in running activities.

With the elementary students, CampBioE faculty and staff built structures using spaghetti noodles and marshmallows, bridges out of popsicle sticks, solar ovens using aluminum foil, played coding games, and swabbed bathroom surfaces to watch bacteria grow.  

“For the younger kids it’s more general science related topics, and I try to make each day a theme,” Knight said. “Because they're young, you can only go so deep into certain topics, so we do mini activities to hold their attention throughout the day and keep them entertained.”  

With the middle schoolers, Abramowitch led a variety of different activities including introductions to AI software and ethics and performing the aforementioned chicken knee dissection to demonstrate ACL failure. Pairing that with a bone-building activity, Abramowitch demonstrated how many external factors can impact our bodies’ functionality. 

“We discussed the strength of bones along with the dissection to see how their own leg is essentially designed, " Abramowitch said. “We did performance-related activities with balance and jumping so the scholars can see how all of these things need to work together in order to function.”

thumbnailBear was also instrumental in this programming, and attributes her own interest in Bioengineering to her experience as a former Camp BioE scholar. 

“Camp BioE inspires campers to consider the science behind things in their everyday life, and by exposing them to many different scientific principles, the campers can find what interests them in the world of STEM,” Bear said.  “My Camp BioE experience inspired me to pursue bioengineering, and I hope it can continue to inspire students for years to come.”

CampBioE is More Than Just STEM Education

While the camp does focus on a STEM -based curriculum, it's so much more than just teaching a camper about chicken knees. For Knight, one of the most important aspects of CampBioE is emphasizing and encouraging diversity in the bioengineering field. 

“It's good for the students, especially underrepresented students, to see someone who looks like them being an engineer,” Knight said. Hall also emphasized the importance of positive role models, expressing the significance of the Pitt bioengineering students who work as CampBioE counselors. 

“I think it's great for students, no matter what age they are, to engage with college students, because when you feel so far removed from something, in an age difference way, it's really hard to conceptualize yourself in their place,” Hall said. “Seeing someone everyday, hearing about their experience and seeing them do things that you want to do one day can be really inspirational.” 

Keeping underrepresented minority students on track to college is especially important with the recent Supreme Court reversal of affirmative action, according to Abramowitch. 

“With affirmative action being essentially erased, it's really going to come down to engaging these students early and changing the culture in the K-12 system so that we can have more students matriculate from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially those who don’t have the same resources as kids from affluent areas,” Abramowitch said. 20230720_142249

The Department of Bioengineering plans to launch CampBioE 2.0 next summer for elementary, middle, and high school students, with Knight taking the lead as director. Looking toward next year, the camp’s organizers hope to expand the program with more funding, implement after-school programs, and work on securing transportation options to and from the camp each day. For Abramowitch, he hopes CampBioE can provide opportunities to explore STEM for those who otherwise wouldn’t have access. 

“It goes beyond race; programs like CampBioE are for people who don't have opportunities,” Abramowitch said. “We're seeing families with either a lot of wealth or very little wealth, and that's being felt across the board. This is all about providing opportunities for those who don't have them.”

The department would like to thank CampBioE’s generous donors and partners: The Grable Foundation, The Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research, Hill District Community Engagement Center, and all who have contributed to CampBioE’s continual success.