S3 Camp: Where friendship, STEM and research collide

October 04, 2023

The team of professors and students tasked with facilitating S3 Camp.

The Faculty of Education served as an intersection for friendship, accessible learning and research this past summer thanks to a unique camp held by researchers and students.

For two weeks in July, children between 10 and 13 years old took part in the Faculty’s S3 Camp.

Serving children with and without intellectual or developmental disabilities, S3 Camp provided a free, inclusive and informal learning environment. The camp’s title refers to the different components that make up the camp’s curriculum — science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and social skills.

Campers began the day with a disability awareness lesson, with the hope that they will retain and apply that knowledge to the STEM activities they later engage in. Campers were also assigned a reflection on what they’ve learned and how they were able to incorporate their newfound awareness into their activities.

“The camp is great because there are no assessments, there are no required things that you have to learn,” said Nicole Neil, Western Education’s Associate Dean of Research, as well as the principal investigator of the research project behind S3 Camp.

“If a student says, ‘I really like robots,’ we can switch gears and they can play with robots … This is a safe space where they can explore their interests and maybe make some friends at the same time.”

Neil ran the camp alongside Education Assistant Professor Anton Puvirajah.

Some of the technology available to children who took part in this year’s S3 Camp.

On top of fuelling important education research, S3 Camp also gave Western students a chance to work under the wings of experienced researchers like Neil and Puvirajah.

One of those students is Kaliee Liesemer, who is pursuing her PhD in School and Applied Child Psychology.

Liesemer worked as a research assistant in the first iteration of S3 Camp four years ago, which marked a crucial moment in her academic career.

“Working for Nicole and being a part of that first camp paved the way to where I am now,” Liesemer said.

Her latest experience offers new insight into what kind of barriers families may face when trying to access services such as a camp, as well as how those barriers may be mitigated.

“Working with the families has been really eye-opening and is a lot of the reason as to why we do it,” Liesemer added.

For Emily Villani, an MA student in School and Applied Child Psychology, the research project was a perfect fit, due to a passion for inclusion combined with a lifetime of summer camp experience.

“I floated to Nicole last year that I would be interested in studying camps, specifically for children with disabilities,” Villani told Western Education, adding that Neil suggested she use findings from S3 Camp for her master’s thesis.

“I was so excited I just jumped right in — that’s the dream for my thesis,” Villani added.

A teacher candidate in the Bachelor of Education program, Gina Silva is a research assistant for S3 Camp, as well as the developer of the camp’s STEM curriculum.

Silva’s curriculum exposed campers to a variety of different technologies all while being supported by their peers. Activities ranged from creating invisible ink, coding robots to talk to each other and coding robots to navigate a complex maze created by a camper.

With a focus on accessibility, Silva designed the camp’s activities with a “low floor, high ceiling” approach, allowing children to get as much out of a single activity as they wanted to.

“I was very intentional in making sure that at the end of every day, there would be some processes and products that they would be able to go home and tell their parents about,” Silva said.

“It’s really important for the camp experience to be fun and to make it very clear that there are a lot of ways to engage in STEM that are different than what you may have experienced in a traditional classroom.”

Like her fellow camp facilitators, Silva shares a passion for breaking down barriers to education. She credits Faculty of Education instructor and PhD candidate Lisa Anne Floyd with serving as an inspiration for accessible teaching, especially when it comes to coding.

“She has this special gift where if you’re learning alongside her, she really helps you see that anyone can get involved with coding,” Silva said, adding that she hopes to have the same impact on her future students.

A snapshot of one of several activities planned for the camp's STEM curriculum.

As for the ongoing research project behind S3 Camp, it will be fuelled by the various findings pulled from the camp, including how well children interacted with each other and how well they interacted with the activities.

Neil, the research project’s principal investigator, says it combines existing knowledge about children with intellectual or development disabilities and the need to create a STEM-capable and STEM-literate workforce.

What’s already known is that these children are at high risk for social exclusion, which may lead to them having fewer friendships or facing significant barriers when trying to engage in community settings. This can limit their experiences later in life once these children enter post-secondary education or the working world.

“The other thing we know from research is that when these students do go into post-secondary or do find employment after high school, they tend to go into STEM areas, so why not foster the connection that’s already there,” Neil said.

The research also explores how children with intellectual or developmental disabilities can best develop soft skills, which are known to be key predictors of success following high school.

Lastly, on top of all the long-term goals associated with the research, S3 Camp has the immediate benefit of creating lasting friendships for the children who attended.

“This camp felt like a great opportunity to support relationship-building among children with and without disabilities,” Neil added.