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E3 camp provides students opportunity to explore STEM fields with hands-on approach

E3 campers learn how to fly a drone with Orange County Sheriff's Department officers. Photo courtesy of Lee Moavenzadeh.

Two girls huddled around a small white and grey robot and a Google Chromebook. One typed in commands while the other positioned the robot at the edge of the table. With the push of a button, the robot moved forward. 

The big smiles that had spread across their faces quickly turned to looks of terror as the robot they programed headed for the table’s edge. They lunged for it, hitting the robot’s reset button just seconds before disaster. 

The girls stood frozen, staring at their runaway bot, before breaking into laughter. Crisis averted. They went back to their computer to make adjustments. 

Programming robots is not how most students spend their summers; but for students at the Empowering Excellence Through Exploration (E3) Camp it’s just another Wednesday, playing and creating with technology and experiments meant to introduce them to the world of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

Founded in 2018, E3 camp was created to introduce students of color in middle and high school to STEM fields through hands-on learning, presentations and field trips. 

“I just didn't see anything engaging for our African American students," camp co-founder and director Anissa McLendon said about programs and opportunities through Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. "I'm always looking for ways that we can work on the achievement gap."

Each day of the three-week camp is packed with activities, from flying drones with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to creating characters with local author Kelly Starling Lyons. 

The camp, which is held at Glenwood Elementary School, had a local focus with many of the presenters being local companies and government entities. The Chapel Hill Fire Department spent the day with the camp on Thursday, July 18, and the Chapel Hill Police Department is scheduled to run a forensics lab with the students. 

While experiments are a fun way to introduce E3 campers to different scientific fields, both the students and camp leaders agreed that the field trips are some of the best parts of camp. 

The students, who come from CHCCS, Durham Public Schools, Chatham County Schools and Kamál Academy, will travel to Durham Technical Community College, North Carolina A&T State University and Strata Solar over the course of the next two weeks. 

McLendon said she wants to show the students the different options they have for continuing their education after high school. 

"Give them different avenues, because if you keep going down the same route, you're going to get the same results," McLendon said. 

In addition to the camp’s array of activities, E3 campers spend time each day learning about the work of Black scientists, inventors and artists.  

“Especially for Black kids like us, I think that it’s giving us the learning, the education that we need,” rising sixth grader Julia Perry said. “They’re mostly talking about people that grew up how we did and how they can do things people say they can’t.”

Camp co-founder Lee Moavenzadeh said this aspect of E3 is an important part of exposing the students to STEM fields. She emphasized the importance of having presenters and camp counselors that look like the campers. 

"As much as possible over the three weeks we want them realizing 'oh my gosh, there are so many people who look like me,'" Moavenzadeh said. "They have the history of people who look like them doing amazing things and then the present connection with people who look like them doing amazing things." 

The camp, which includes breakfast and lunch every day of the three weeks, is free for all campers. Every camper qualifies for free and reduced lunch. 

Local restaurants and Chartwells, which provides meals for CHCCS, have donated food, but McLendon said she is still looking for donors. 

E3 also gives each student a backpack filled with school supplies that should last the students through most of the upcoming school year. 

The camp was awarded a $5,000 Public School Foundation grant in 2018 that it was only able to access this summer. While the grant has covered some of the camp’s expenses, it doesn’t pay for all of it. 

Organizations like the Compass Youth Center, which brought the robots to camp as part of a First Lego League tutorial, are part of the reason that E3 has been such a success - and why campers are excited to come back every day. 

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"I just come in, learn a lot and have fun," rising 9th grader Grace Odondi said.