CampBioE: Opening the Door to STEM Careers
By: Faith Jeffcoat
If you pose the question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ to a young person, ‘bioengineer’ is unlikely to be their first response. If you’ve never seen or experienced something, how can you even imagine being it?
STEM programming remains unevenly distributed across the country, with underrepresented groups having more limited opportunities compared to their White counterparts. In the United States, only 57% of Black students have access to the full range of math and science gateway classes for STEM success in higher education, compared to 71% of White students, according to the Department of Education.
CampBioE, a bioengineering summer camp hosted by the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, is helping change that landscape. CampBioE is now under the direction of Dr. Katrina Knight, a primary investigator at Magee-Womens Research Institute focused on developing new products for use in pelvic organ prolapse repair, and assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Through her leadership, CampBioE is continuing to expand by broadening the age range of camp participants, adding additional weeklong cohorts, and growing the underrepresented demographic of the camp.
“My goal is to expose students to STEM, especially those who look like me. It is hard to see yourself in a field where no one looks like you,” says Dr. Knight. “I really, truly believe that if you can see it, you can be it. It becomes a possibility for you, which is what I am trying to show these kids.”
What began with a grant, a small group of students, and a van ride to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University has grown into CampBioE.
“The program started with a collaboration with the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative. When that dissolved, we had a choice: to do it ourselves or let it end. We made the commitment to keep the camp alive. I became director and started running and rebranding the camp,” says Dr. Steven Abramowitch, CampBioE’s first director.
During the summer camp, middle and high schoolers experience an immersive educational experience where they engage in hands-on activities and workshops related to the field of bioengineering. Through a combination of lectures, laboratory sessions, and group projects, students explore the principles of biology and engineering integration, where they learn to design and create innovative solutions for real-world challenges.
Since its inception in 2007, it has grown into a community of more than 100 campers. The camp’s commitment to inclusivity has been central to its growth — beginning with only 5% of participants being from underrepresented demographics to now, more than 50%. The camp now runs for five weeks, which includes five different cohorts by age. Dr. Knight is currently working on expanding the camp participants to include elementary students.
“It is vital to expose students to STEM earlier,” says Dr. Knight. “I am working on launching a new CampBioE (CampBioE 2.0) where it’s going to span the entire K–12 grades."
CampBioE leaders have seen their impact in action, with some attendees moving on to pursue bioengineering in their studies, and even return to the camp again as a participant or counselor.
“Witnessing middle school attendees return year after year, embracing engineering as their calling, advancing to the University of Pittsburgh, and evolving into companies that support the camp is the most rewarding part,” says Dr. Abramowitch.
One CampBioE participant, Sofia Bear, who first attended the camp in seventh grade, returned as a counselor in 2022. “I loved how engaged the counselors were in my camp experience and I wanted to provide a similar experience for the campers this year,” says Sofia. “CampBioE is an interactive program that allows students to experience all kinds of engineering. When I came to camp, we were exposed to structural engineering, computer engineering, coding, and 3D modeling. CampBioE is a great way for students to gain exposure to both bioengineering and related STEM fields.”
As CampBioE paves a path toward a more equitable and diverse STEM community by fostering inclusivity, representation, and hands-on exploration, it nurtures young minds, propelling them toward a future brimming with possibilities.
For more information on CampBioE, visit https://www.engineering.pitt.edu/departments/bioengineering/campbioe/
Read the full Winter 2024 MAGEE Magazine issue here.