By: Juel L Thomas-Smith, Co-Director/Education & Mentoring Specialist; PITT CampBioE
Having co-directed the University of Pittsburgh’s CampBioE summer program for the past 10 years, I have become quite accustomed to our yearly routine: presenting to a similar demographic, being in a familiar space with the same setup, having easy access to an endless supply of resources, and appreciating the comfort of having our staff a floor above. You could say that overall we had it relatively easy when it came to knowing the everyday logistics of our yearly daily schedule. However, there was one thing that we lacked – the ability for students from various backgrounds to have greater access to our program.
CampBioE is a five-week summer program that focuses on teaching 6th through 12th grade students the wonders of bioengineering, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine through fun and engaging activities. It was created over 15 years ago by the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering as a means of increasing the presence of ethnic and gender-based underrepresented minorities (URM) in STEM disciplines. We have educated more than 1,000 middle and high school students and have trained over 50 bioengineering and biology undergraduate students to be science educators.
There was never really a problem with filling the available spaces for our general admission weeks – parents would drive from areas North, South and West of Pittsburgh. However, during the weeks where our focus was primarily on URM students, our attendance was down. Our only remedy would be to relocate, but with a very small budget, this didn’t seem possible – until the University of Pittsburgh’s Community Engagement Center (CEC) in Homewood was built.
The opening of this wonderful facility provided our program an alternative space that not only had ease of access, but also offered even better facilities than those we have worked with for over a decade. Each year we would be faced with the task of converting a large conference room into a working lab, but with the CEC space, we had access to a beautiful lab space, modern classrooms, technology, and a plethora of other wonderful amenities. The CEC team were accommodating and flexible throughout our six-week stay and even assisted by recommending our program to the families and students who frequented their facility. With their help, we were able to have a full registration and even contemplated the addition of another week to service all of the requests that we received.
Something as simple as location and facilities can truly make a significant impact on the overall success of a program. It is our hope to continue this partnership and possibly grow it even more through expansion to the Hill District CEC as well. As a minority, a community member, educator, and scientist, I find the presence of the University of Pittsburgh and facilities such as the CEC to be truly beneficial to the educational enlightenment of persons from diverse cultures, ethnicities, and a wide array of ages. To see such a varied populace occupying the same space and learning from one another was truly an impactful experience for not only myself, but also for our staff and student participants. It is because of this, I look forward to not only working with the CEC next summer, but also becoming an active participant of their wide array of ongoing community activities.