Not your average summer camp
Typical summer camp activities include sleeping in a tent or cabin, singing silly camp songs, and applying lots of bug repellant. Campers who attend the Illinois Aerospace Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have a very different experience. They spend a week on campus learning about aerospace engineering.
About 28 years ago, U of I Professor Kenneth Sivier had an idea to offer a week-long summer camp for students in grades 9 to 12 who were interested in the field of aerospace and aviation. Sivier developed the curriculum and a recently hired staff member in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Diane Jeffers, was assigned to help coordinate the camp. Today, the Illinois Aerospace Institute is still going strong. In fact, it is so popular that two identical sessions for 40 students each are offered, with a waiting list that grows every year.
When campers complete an end-of-the-camp evaluation, they rate highly the hands-on activities, the high quality and advanced level of camp instruction, and the introduction to college life. A number of students also recognize the outstanding reputation of the campus. As a side benefit, the campers make new friends and contacts who have similar interests.
Students in the camp stay in dorm rooms and eat in the dining hall so they get a taste of what being a college student feels like. Jeffers said, for some, this is their first residential experience being away from home for a full week.
In addition to building and flying rockets and gliders, the students learn about the physics of flight and aerodynamics, visit labs, participate in group activities, and go on field trips.
Jeffers and AE Director of Undergraduate Programs Brian Woodard co-direct the camp.
[Watch a video of Woodard interviewed on WCIA-TV. The news crew visited the launch at Dodd's Park on the last day of this year's camp.]
What makes this particular camp stand out?
“It provides a unique opportunity to explore details of aerospace engineering,” Woodard said. “Graduate students lead sessions on topics related to their research expertise, and the camp participants run experiments using the same equipment that our college students use during courses. Through these sessions, the students learn about advanced composite materials, aerodynamics, and rocket propulsion. They also get an introduction to orbital maneuvers for spacecraft.”
In order to get the most out of these technical sessions, Woodard said participants must apply and be accepted to the program. The application includes a personal statement, a letter of recommendation from one of their teachers, and a list of their coursework thus far, and grades.
[Watch a video of one of this year's IAI students while he was working in the Engineering Student Project Laboratory.]
“Although specific aerospace experience is not required, we want to see applicants who are serious about expanding their knowledge of physics and math as applied to aerospace engineering,” Woodard said.
Woodard has a long history with this camp. He attended the camp in 1996 as a high school student. Later at U of I as an AE undergraduate student, he worked as a counselor, and in graduate school, he was an instructor. Having experienced the camp from all angles gives him a unique perspective as co-director.
Another mainstay at the camp is Sarah Schneider. She began helping coordinate the camps when she was an undergraduate at Eastern Illinois University in education, and spent her summers in Champaign. As an elementary teacher with her summers free, she has worked for the Illinois Aerospace Institute almost every year since 2002—missing a few years when her children were born and to conduct general education camps for younger students.
In addition to enjoying working with the staff in AE, Schneider said, “It’s fun to see the students' love for aerospace grow during their week here. Many participants have come to U of I in aerospace and become counselors and instructors because they loved their camp experience when they were here as high schoolers and want to be involved in spreading their love for engineering.”
This year’s staff included current AE undergraduate students Courtney Steele, Joshua Super, Robert Filipiuk, and Joshua Clements and 2019 graduates Katie Carroll and Emil Broemmelsiek. AE graduate students Rohit Gupta, Vanessa Awate, Kevin Kim, Alex Faustino, Giusy Falcone, Marc Akiki, Aaron Perry, and Branden Kirchner led the technical sessions.
Gupta’s primary role in the camp was to teach aerodynamics and propulsion. He said he spends a lot of time preparing for the classes “to ensure that I’m able to communicate the beauty of the science to the students in a fun and engaging way.”
Not surprisingly, one of Gupta’s highlights concerns a student who learned something new.
“I had one student who had a prior interest in aerodynamics and had explored some of the concepts, but he had a host of questions that he wasn’t able to find answers to in the past,” Gupta said. “I vividly remember the look of delight on his face as he was able to finally have answers to the questions that had troubled him.”
To learn more about the Illinois Aerospace Institute, visit the website.