University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering


STEP Forward Camp Forms Lasting Friendships While Teaching Engineering Basics


Melanie Ziems
STEP Forward campers pose by the Houston Waterwall.
STEP Forward campers pose by the Houston Waterwall.

In 2006, just months after stepping into her new role as PROMES Director, Kathy Zerda led her first STEP Forward camp at the University of Houston. Over the course of the week, she watched her campers form friendships through team building exercises and field trips, and she found herself bonding with them as well. After the camp ended, she remained in touch with some campers (a few of whom later became UH cougars as well) and lost touch with others.

Eight years later, as Zerda was preparing for another summer of STEP Forward camp, she learned that the father of one of her old 2006 campers had passed away. On the Thursday before camp started, she attended his wake in support of his son. When she arrived at the viewing, she realized she was not the only member of the UH community who was there to support the former STEP Forward camper. In the lobby, he was surrounded by the very same group of friends he met that summer in 2006 at STEP Forward camp. A group of strangers that she watched meet for the first time eight years prior had formed a bond that stood the test of time.

STEP Forward Camp is a one-week residential engineering introduction program for rising 12th graders sponsored by PROMES and supported by ExxonMobil, Shell, Williams, Hewlett-Packard, BP and Chevron as well as the National Science Foundation and the Texas Workforce Commission. Admission is highly competitive, and the camp is limited to a small number of talented high schoolers who spend the week immersed in introductory engineering courses. Campers stay on campus in the dorms and interact with current Cullen College students acting as mentors and counselors. The camp has taken many different forms since its inception in 1979, including different names and lengths, but the central mission has always been the same: inspire a new generation of engineers to strive for greatness.

This year’s camp was held June 15-22 and was packed with different activities to stir up excitement for the engineering profession. According to John Matthews, Jr., PROMES Program Manager, the camp is a great opportunity for high school students to get a firm grasp on what engineering really is.

“Most kids do not know what engineering really is about. It’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer, they see examples of [those professions] all day. It’s kind of hard to tell kids what an engineer does when they just see them sitting at a desk. It’s not in a courtroom, he’s working out problems, he’s checking on things, how they run, and it is a lot different of a process,” Matthews said. “These are things kids need to know. They may say they want to major in mechanical engineering, but they don’t know what mechanical engineers do, and they different jobs they can have. This gives them a better idea.”

Matthews said they use game formats like “engineering jeopardy” to make technical concepts more approachable by younger students. Additionally, in the beginning of camp, they are introduced to the physics of roller coasters by Len Trombetta, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. After the lesson, they’re told that over the course of the week they’ll build their own roller coasters out of Popsicle sticks; the process culminates in a final competition at the end of camp.

The camp has an intense schedule, with campers up every morning between 6 and 6:30 a.m. and busy with activities until about 11 p.m. In addition to activities on campus, the group also visits companies like ExxonMobil and Hewlett-Packard to get an up-close and personal view of different engineering professionals in action. It’s a packed schedule, but Matthews said by explaining the rigorous clip in the beginning, they end up with a dedicated bunch of students.

“We interview each candidate we accept into the program, so they go through that process just to make sure [they want to come], because it’s a real intense program and we don’t want people there who are not really there for the right reasons. We tell them what kind of schedule they’re going to have so they know it’s not a vacation,” he said. “If you tell people they’re in for a rough ride and they agree that they really want it, they don’t have any complaints [about the schedule].”

The hard work pays off, too. Campers work from the same book chapters as Cullen College freshmen in the PROMES introductory course, putting them at an advantage when they do begin their college career. They benefit from extreme team-building lessons and leave with a detailed image of what college might really be like for them. And as Zerda witnessed firsthand, the bonds formed at STEP Forward Camp expand far beyond the boundaries of the UH campus.

“They have a real intense team building experience,” Matthews said. “You know, they come in as strangers and can be kind of shy. So we get these kids involved with talking to each other and find out it’s ok to be like they are. There are a lot of best friends formed during that week.”

To learn more about STEP Forward Camp, click here.


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