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W&M summer camp focuses on the future

  • Launching into the future:
    Launching into the future:  Sophia Hall and Toleah Gosier prepare to test out a paper table they built in engineering class, one of four STEM-focused courses students will take during their two-weeks at Camp Launch.  Photo by Marisa Spyker
  • Launching into the future:
    Launching into the future:  In the personal development course, students discuss college planning and admission, and what they can start doing now to prepare.  Photo by Marisa Spyker
  • Launching into the future:
    Launching into the future:  Mihyeon Kim, the director of Camp Launch, chats with Penny Brown, the instructor for the Lego robotics course.  Photo courtesy of Mihyeon Kim
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In a classroom in Tucker Hall, Sophia Hall holds a large textbook at eye level and slowly lowers it toward a makeshift table crafted from cardboard and newspaper and patched together with masking tape. 

“I don’t think it’s going to survive!” says Toleah Gosier, hands steady as she secures the table base.

Jeff Fry, their instructor for this engineering class, pipes in: “Keep a positive attitude!”

As the book makes contact, Hall lets go, leaving a slightly unstable, albeit still intact, paper support system. Both girls cheer.

“I didn’t think I was interested in building things, but after taking this class I kind of like it,” said Hall, a rising 7th grader. “I’ve wanted to be an engineer for a long time, but am more interested in chemical or biomedical engineering. I’ve also thought about being a psychologist someday. Those are really my three big dreams right now.”

{{youtube:medium:left|MrPhK7-UNBc, Camp Launch's LEGO Robotics class}}

After two weeks immersed in life at William & Mary, Hall might just feel a step closer to obtaining those dreams. She and Gosier are among a group of 65 7th and 8th graders from regional middle schools selected to participate in this year’s Camp Launch, a summer camp geared toward gifted students from low-income areas. While the camp (held this year July 17-30) is largely focused on promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — students also take classes in college preparatory subjects like writing and personal development. 

“These students and their parents are passionate about their education, but they often don’t have the resources to learn about different careers or colleges,” said Mihyeon Kim, the director of Camp Launch. “We want to provide them with that information so they can make better decisions about their futures and know that there are opportunities out there for them.”

Camp Launch started five years ago as a sort of spinoff from the Center for Gifted Education’s Summer Enrichment series, which is a paid enrichment program open to kids from all areas. As a way to reach high-ability kids from underrepresented school districts, Kim and Tracy Cross, executive director of the Center for Gifted Education, came up with the idea for a grant-funded summer program that would be free to all participants. 

This year, a new $1 million gift from W&M alumni Nancy Briggs Petters ’81 and Mike Petters M.B.A. ’93 through the Petters Family Foundation funded the camp and will keep the camp running strong for the next four years. 

“Their financial support has been essential to keep the camp alive,” said Tracy Cross, executive director of the Center for Gifted Education. “If they hadn’t given a gift, there would have been a lag in the program.” 

In the two weeks the kids spend at the camp, they’ll sleep in W&M residence halls, attend daily classes from hands-on engineering, acid, acid everywhere, and LEGO robotics to writing and personal development, participate in enrichment courses such as drama, martial arts, or video game development, and receive nightly group or one-on-one counseling with Camp Launch counselors, many of whom are W&M students or recent graduates. 

“We talk to them about their days and what they liked or didn’t like, but we also talk to them about confidence and what that means to them,” said Ricky Coston ’12, M.Ed. ’14, a head counselor who’s been working at Camp Launch since the program’s inception. “We ask them to rate their levels of confidence and help them figure out how they can move onto that next level.”

Kids travel to attend the camp from school districts within a 75-mile radius of Williamsburg, which are targeted based on the percentage of free or reduced lunch their students receive. Students are nominated by their middle school, and applications are subsequently reviewed by Camp Launch coordinators. Rising 7th graders are new to the camp, but all rising 8th graders are returning students. Last year, the camp also began extending invitations to a small group of rising 9th graders and Camp Launch alumni, who serve as teaching assistants and role models to the younger students.

“We’ll often try to continue that relationship with the kids past camp through social media or phone calls to see how they are doing and to see if there’s anything we can do to keep their love of STEM or another passion they developed here alive,” said Coston. “Keeping the kids on that path to college and career is something we’re very interested in.”

Kim seconds that, saying continual engagement past camp, throughout high school and, hopefully, into college is her ultimate goal. 

“Our follow-up interviews show that these kids now know that they need to get good grades so they can get into a good college and have a career, which they’d never thought about before because many of them will become the first college generation,” said Kim. “After this experience they think it’s a great thing. It’s so rewarding to hear statements like that from the students.”