Over summer break, Rice University welcomes hundreds of middle and high school students to participate in various academic camps offered on campus. The Tapia Camps, named for mathematician and Rice professor Dr. Richard Tapia, are for rising eighth-12th graders interested in STEM and honing their calculus skills before the new school year.
Each Tapia camp is one week long (six days, five nights). Students stay in the Rice dorms and spend instruction time in actual college classrooms in a sneak-preview of the structure of collegiate life. Participating HISD students are joined by campers from all over the United States, and some even travel from other countries to attend. Tapia campers spend their days learning directly from Rice University graduate students from a curriculum designed by a team of researchers led by professor and Tapia Camps Director Paul Hand.
The Tapia Camps began with the goal of creating opportunities for students to pursue further STEM education. While programs existed for undergraduate and graduate students, Tapia saw an opportunity to expose students to STEM at a younger age, when they are first developing foundational interests and goals.
STEM-focused summer camps are uniquely appropriate for HISD students, as the district as well as individual campuses are committed to ensuring that schools in high-poverty areas have access to effective STEM teachers and programs. HISD has made great strides in STEM and STEAM education, and now, more than 20 HISD schools offer STEM pathways in their curriculum as well as STEM extracurriculars, like competitive robotics teams.
“Our mission is to empower everyone to pursue further education and careers in STEM with a specific focus on those from underrepresented groups,” said Hand. “We want everyone, regardless of their background, to see themselves in STEM, so our projects are meant to be engaging for a wide range of participants.”
Tapia campers collaborate on two STEM projects throughout their camp session, one in which they design and execute an algorithm for college admissions, and another based on carbon capture and emissions.
“Our world is completely saturated with the consequences of our anthropogenic and industrial activities, which leads to a need for awareness and attempts to stretch for solutions through science and advocacy,” said Rice Biosciences graduate student Eleana Rizous, a Tapia Camps teacher. “Our projects increase awareness in the young students. It teaches them that they can apply these engineering principles that big companies have pioneered and that may contribute to pollution and create solutions.”
In addition to the two major capstone projects that round out the week at Rice, HISD partnered with the Tapia Center to develop CALC Squared, a supplementary program within the Tapia Camps that provides additional homework help and preparation for students enrolled in AP Calculus in the fall.
From guest speakers and their graduate student teachers, campers learn both about their projects as working scientists and mathematicians and the human element of a career in STEM. Meeting undergraduate and graduate students from similar backgrounds is an invaluable resource to the campers who want to pursue a college education, and the connections that they make help them to make informed decisions for their futures with added context that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.
The Tapia Camps are unique in that, while chiefly a program that is focused on STEM principles, participants also have to be able to communicate with their fellow campers and must learn and practice skills in public speaking and collaboration in order for their projects to succeed.
At the end of the week, Tapia campers present their final projects to their camp teachers, student peers, and Tapia himself. Over1,600 budding scientists and mathematicians have attended the Tapia Camps since the program’s inception seven years ago.