Brenda Large, College of DuPAge
STEM camper doing soldering project

STEM Camps: Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers

July 5, 2024
Industrial workforce shortages are driving initiatives such as upskilling and STEM camps that attract new workers. Discover how one hands-on program is inspiring the next generation of engineers and manufacturers.
Workforce shortages and skills gaps continue to plague the industrial sector. The challenge of attracting the next generation of manufacturers and engineers is at the forefront of many company initiatives. 
Ideas to entice newcomers can range from providing more training, such as the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing — a joint effort between Manpower Group and Rockwell Automation to connect U.S. military veterans with the upskilling they need for manufacturing roles, to inspiring youth to achieve careers in the field through robotics and coding programs, such as FIRST and Girls Who Code, respectively, and other local community college STEM camps. 
The latter gained my attention when my daughter and her best friend expressed an interest in doing a summer camp together. Both are naturally gifted in mathematics and science and entering 8th grade this fall. When looking at options, we stumbled upon a two-week STEM program that introduces girls to design and manufacturing processes. 
Hosted by the local community college and the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association’s Nut, Bolts & Thingamjigs Foundation, campers gain hands-on exposure and experience the skills needed for high-tech manufacturing careers. Students learn everything from coding to building a prototype to creating a final project, which they present at the end of camp. 
Campers worked with sophisticated machinery, such as mechanical and manual lathes, MIG welders, milling presses, laser cutting machines, press brakes and soldering kits, among other heavy equipment found in a manufacturing setting. They also learned engineering-based software programs, including SolidWorks and CorelDraw, and wrote G-Code control for CNC machines. 
On the last day of camp, the students presented their final projects in a PowerPoint presentation to family members. The girls showcased what they learned and how they built their final projects. Students could choose between building a custom shelf made with wood and metal, a laser-etched wooden box or a planter. 
The campers also visit a local manufacturing facility as part of the program. 
“Our camps offer a micro-macro approach where students can build a project at the micro level and then take a tour of a manufacturing plant to see how these micro skills they learned for manufacturing can impact a community and the economy as a whole,” said Ed Dernulc, foundation director, Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA).
The tours also help combat the myth that manufacturing environments are dark, dangerous and dank. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Dernulc emphasizes. “Safety is tantamount to these organizations’ success, so they can’t have the dirt, slippery floors and bad lighting. So, when these kids go on the tours, they see the kinds of environments they could work in.” 
Dernulc also stressed the importance of reaching the 12–15-year age group. Studies show this age has the most impact as kids begin exploring and considering potential future careers. 

Case in point: to say my daughter and her best friend loved this program is an understatement. They both came home excited to share what they learned each day at camp. My daughter has particularly developed a love of welding and soldering to the point she’s asked for her own equipment. She’s extremely proud of her newfound skills, and the camp director even dubbed her a “natural” as she maneuvered every tool handed to her with ease. 

The popularity of STEM camps is likely to grow. In addition to industry associations like FMA, companies, park districts, schools and local colleges all offer programs dedicated to STEM. Since 2020, FMA has seen a 400% increase in demand for their camps. Four years ago, FMA offered 80 camps. This year, the program has expanded to more than 320 camps across 29 states, with potential for up to 350 camp programs in up to 31 states next year, shared Dernulc.
Even students interested in ChemE careers can benefit from general engineering camps like the one my daughter attended. As columnist Dirk Willard pointed out, a job in industry requires much more than just chemical engineering skills. A chemical engineer can benefit from a basic understanding of mechanical, electrical and even civil engineering practices. 
The camps clearly seem to do exactly as aimed. What better way for students to grasp manufacturing and engineering basics than hands-on STEM and robotics camps? My daughter can’t wait for the next opportunity to attend one. And, after visiting the local manufacturing facility on their field trip day, her best friend immediately proclaimed, “I want to work here someday.” 
About the Author

Amanda Joshi | Managing Editor

Amanda Joshi has more than 18 years of experience in business-to-business publishing for both print and digital content. Before joining Chemical Processing, she worked with and Electrical Contracting Products. She’s a versatile, award-winning editor with experience in writing and editing technical content, executing marketing strategy, developing new products, attending industry events and developing customer relationships. 

Amanda graduated from Northern Illinois University in 2001 with a B.A. in English and has been an English teacher. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and daughter, and their mini Aussiedoodle, Riley. In her rare spare time, she enjoys reading, tackling DIY projects, and horseback riding.

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