Innovative Program Gives Summer Boost to UVA Engineering Students and Children Interested in STEM

COVID-19 left more than a few people with openings on their summer calendars. That gave some University of Virginia School of Engineering students, faculty and staff an idea.

The Center for Diversity in Engineering, in partnership with UVA Engineering professors Keivan Esfarjani and Hui Ma, is offering The Circle Project this summer, a series of virtual courses taught by engineering students to expose as many K-12 students as possible, regardless of their means, to topics in science, technology, engineering and math.

“We hope this is going to be an effective way to address the loss of summer programs for both college students and youth,” Jason Jones, UVA Engineering’s director of inclusive excellence and applied research, said.

The Circle Project’s classes began June 29 and end August 14. Each class is one or two weeks depending on its complexity. The program has included 31 courses for children in grades 1-12, and titles include “Earth Warriors,” “Hogwarts Online,” “Design a Better World,” “Forensics and Crime Investigation,” “Python and Data Science,” and “Engineering Our Immune System.” Courses are first-come, first-served, with registration limited to about 10 students each. Courses are still open, and those interested in registering can click here.

Courses cost $120 per week, with the fees helping pay the UVA students who are teaching. However, financial assistance is available for any families who want to register children but may not be able to afford the cost.

Prior to the pandemic, Courtney Kennedy, a rising second-year systems engineering major, was planning to study in Germany for the summer. Her travel was canceled, and then she learned about The Circle Project. “The class I am teacher in, ‘Hogwarts Online,’ is based on ‘Harry Potter.’ It is nice because I am able to teach math, biology, chemistry and physics under the realm of Hogwarts so it makes students much more interested and engaged in the material,” Kennedy said.

“Since a lot of internships and summer camps due to the pandemic ended up being canceled, we came up with the idea for The Circle Project, which will in turn help out the community as well as our own students,” said Keivan Esfarjani, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering with a courtesy appointment in materials science and engineering. “I have kids myself, and I know how much parents will benefit from having their children engaged as well.”

“I thought it was a really cool way to reach out to different communities and to inspire them to want to pursue STEM carriers in the future, and I specifically wanted to work with younger kids because I feel like you can make a really big impact in their lives from such a young age by exposing them as well as getting them excited for their future,” Kayla Spigelman, instructor of the “Earth Warriors” summer course and a 2020 systems engineering graduate, said.

UVA students who were interested in teaching courses for The Circle Project had to apply, and were given many tips for online teaching before starting their selected courses.

“Online learning presents a whole new set of challenges,” Ethan Gahm, a rising second-year computer science major and instructor for “The Prisoner's Dilemma & Beyond: Game Theory, Strategy, and the Math Behind Decision-Making,” said. “I have had to learn to self-motivate, since receiving feedback is challenging online, and self-reassure. I also think it is a great experience teaching younger kids because it helps you learn how to teach different topics in many different ways in order for everyone to understand the concepts.”

Zachary Kim, instructor for “Coding for Gamers 101” and a rising third-year mechanical engineering major, said, “The final project for the end of the week is for them to make their own games based on what we have taught them throughout the week and then present the games to their class and families. The students are trying really hard to impress everyone, which is really motivating to me through my work as well.”

“This is the first time we are doing a project like this, and we have received a lot of interest from students and parents, so if this goes well hopefully we can continue this program in the future,” Hui Ma, UVA Engineering assistant professor of applied mathematics, said.

“This project is an opportunity for us all to engage with our community, especially with some families of children from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented and underserved in STEM,” Ma said. “They will have a chance to come meet with us and explore different topics in science and engineering.”