To the curious audience reading this post, hello! My name is Davina, and I am a neuroscience major in the faculty of science. This past summer I had the opportunity to lead summer camps through DiscoverE as part of my stretch experience. DiscoverE is a non-profit that provides fun and engaging STEM programming to children and youth through workshops, clubs, summer camps, and special events. As a summer camp leader, I often called out the line “When I say Discover…” to get my campers’ attention, as they would have to reply with an enthusiastic “E!” before quieting down
For those of you reading this who are hearing about the stretch experience for the first time, designing and completing the stretch experience is part of the interdisciplinary leadership certificate offered through the Peter Lougheed Leadership College. The stretch experience is a 200 hour project that:
- Contributes to the community
- Involves a leadership component
- Stretches the student outside of their comfort zone
- Helps the student develop skills related to their future career
Now to answer the obvious question:
Why did you decide to work at DiscoverE for your stretch experience?
I was incredibly fortunate to have some senior peers in my first year of university who advised me to get involved in research early. And I followed their advice, shadowing labs during the year and working in labs for my first two summers. I really enjoyed the solo aspect of lab work and the control I had over my own schedule. However, I realized that my ability to make decisions on the spot and to work alongside other people needed some brushing up. So, this summer I decided to experiment (pun intended) with something new. It was around this time that I was asked to submit ideas for my stretch experience and I quickly realized that working at DiscoverE would be the perfect opportunity to contribute to the community, exercise leadership, step outside my comfort zone, and improve my decision-making and interpersonal skills. I taught campers from grade 1-9 about breadboards, robotics, and chromatography amongst other STEM-related topics in Edmonton for about half the summer, and then traveled to Yellowknife and Cold Lake First Nation for the other half.
Teaching kids has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Admittedly, I was quite nervous about the little experience I had managing classrooms or large groups of children prior to working at DiscoverE. But I’ve learned a lot in my time here. Working with grade 1-9 campers has taught me about the unique quirks and challenges of each age group. No matter where I teach, there’s nothing more wholesome than seeing a grade 1 camper express uncontrolled excitement upon seeing their purple marker separate into multiple colors on a coffee filter. On the other end of the spectrum, I was peppered with many million-dollar questions about the cost and effects of buckyballs on the environment and the human body by grade 8 campers. As cliché as it sounds, I am optimistic about the future after having the chance to engage with such curious, bright, and environmentally-conscious minds.
That being said, a stretch experience is not a stretch without its challenges. My quick decision-making skills have definitely improved, and I’ve learned how to juggle responsibilities between a team of instructors. It took me awhile to get used to the mentality of making a plan knowing that it could completely change within the next hour, hence the quick decision making. And I hit many roadblocks with kids who did not find a particular project interesting, or had trouble working alongside others. I feel like teaching, and leading more broadly, is often framed as a process of one person imparting knowledge upon another, but it’s actually a very interactive and iterative process. The ability to get my lesson across was highly dependent on my ability to read non-verbal cues from students and to adjust in real time. Keeping the campers engaged also meant that I spent a lot of time figuring out why they weren’t having fun. I’m glad I did research for the past two summers, because the analytical part of my mind pushed me to reflect on how I could experiment with different teaching techniques in order to improve the degree of engagement. However, no matter how much thinking I did, my campers never failed to remind me that human connection is a lot more about listening. I was able to resolve many conflicts simply by asking campers to share their side of the story with me. In fact, I realized that many of the bonds I made with my campers happened outside of lessons and projects. Whether it was pushing a kid on the swing for what felt like thousandth time or playing below the knee tag, understanding my campers and getting them to open up often depended on my ability to connect with them outside the classroom.
Given that I completed this stretch experience for a leadership certificate, I feel that it is important to note how DiscoverE helped me cultivate leadership qualities.
- I was amazed by how quickly the kids respected and looked up to me. The rules I set were taken as gospel truth, especially in camps with younger campers, so it placed a certain degree of responsibility on me that I hadn’t previously experienced.
- There were many times when the campers had conflicting interests. I was responsible for helping everyone find a “win-win” solution, and for helping those who didn’t get their way to feel heard in the decision-making process.
- If there’s anything I learned from my first year in the Peter Lougheed Leadership college, it’s that leadership is about listening to your followers. And I was constantly pushed to listen to my campers, and to listen beyond the literal meanings of words when campers were upset or frustrated.
To wrap this up, I’m going to quickly emphasize why you should consider working with youth in whatever field you’re most passionate about (although I will quickly mention that DiscoverE is always looking for volunteers):
- If you’re looking to develop leadership skills, then you will have the chance to develop them. This could be as grand as developing new curriculum and training new instructors, or as simple as telling your campers that they can study the brain for their degree. You will also have the opportunity to practice your active listening skills as you witness, facilitate, and manage relationships between young minds with diverse interests.
- Science students spend a lot of time studying and conducting research, and not enough time listening to and engaging with youth or the community. Many of us are interested in becoming medical professionals or developing technologies that will save humankind, but how will we achieve such lofty goals if we don’t practice listening to those on the receiving end of our efforts?
- I had one female camper tell me with the biggest smile on her face that “I wish lunch would be over quickly so that we could go back in and work on our robots!” As a true science nerd, woman in STEM, or just lover of learning in general if that doesn’t inspire you, nothing will.