Instructor works with two students on computers Image by Lowell Sun/Julia Malakie
Project LEARN's Idea Camp at UMass Lowell. Eunha Park, 12, left, and her sister Eunseo Park, 11, of Lowell, show instructor Cathy Boucher of Lowell, a Daley Middle School E.S.L. teacher, their projects in Gamemaker camp.

Lowell Sun

LOWELL — After a two-year break during the pandemic, Lowell middle school students are back at Idea Camp, a three-week STEAM workshop program hosted by Project Learn Inc. and Lowell Public Schools.

Students select from a series of 14 different workshops — including robotics, coding, video game design, drone building, crime science, architecture, art, and mind-body wellness. In one workshop, fifth to eighth grade students will build a kinetic sculpture to be featured in Lowell’s Kinetic Sculpture race in September.

Most Idea Camp workshops are held at the Engineering School at UMass Lowell. Students learn from Lowell Public School teachers and UMass Lowell interns. For many of the students, this will be the first time they get to see a college campus.

“I feel excited being here on campus because one day it’s going to be me here, and I’ll be the one walking through the hallways and going to my classes,” said sixth grader Sarah Vicente.

Down the hall, in the Southwick Building, sixth grader Zarinab Adnann joined eight other students in the Crime Science workshop. “I loved dissecting owl pellets and extracting DNA.”

UMass Lowell Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Joseph Hartman was an early advocate to bring Idea Camp to the university’s School of Engineering.

“Idea Camp has been going on for ages in this city, but when I was the dean of engineering, I wanted to bring it back to the university,” said Hartman. “I knew it was a way to get these kids exposed not only to the different STEAM fields, but also to the university and the idea of being here one day, too.”

Patti Adams, a ninth grade science teacher at Lowell High School, organizes all the logistics for Idea Camp.

“It’s really the hands-on programming side of Idea Camp that is getting these kids excited, and it’s the reason why our workshops are filling up,” said Adams. “We try to always listen to what they want, so we can build the programs around their interests and what they want to learn.”

One Idea Camp teacher, Erinn McLaughlin, who teaches math and science at the Rogers STEM Academy, is a former Idea Camper herself, and proponent of experiential learning.

“If you don’t let kids be creative and explore, then why are they here?” said McLaughlin. “That’s why I think Idea Camp is so great, they get to build, be curious, and just dive in.”

Idea Camp, which will serve 250 students this summer, is a signature summer program for Project Learn, and part of a strategy to support enhanced learning in science, technology, engineering, art and design and math.

“Not only are these students highly engaged and having fun,” said LZ Nunn, Project Learn’s executive director, “they are creating connections and exploring fundamental skills that will be building blocks of their future career development.”

This year, the participants are doing just that.

“My favorite part about the workshop I’m in,” said rising eighth grader Ronnie Stein, “is that I’m able to just unleash my creativity with no limits and make whatever I want to.”

Thanks to a 10-year sustaining grant from the Cummings Foundation, Project Learn has been able to provide more than 200 students spots in the three-weeklong program at no cost to their families.