For more than 20 years, SAME’s Engineering & Construction Camps have been providing opportunities for high school students to get hands-on experience in STEM. These weeklong summer camps, held in conjunction with the military services, expose rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors to engineering and construction skills while helping develop leadership and teamwork.
The Camps Program is supported by a dedicated cadre of volunteers, Posts, and Sustaining Members who contribute everything from advance planning and oversight, to financial support for campers, to filling on-site mentoring and staffing needs. SAME recently chatted with representatives of the Scott Field Post and Vicksburg Post who support the SAME/Air Force Camp and SAME/Army Camp, respectively, on what it takes to host a camp, how they are addressing current challenges, and advice for Posts looking to start or expand their own program.
SAME: Can you give us a brief overview of the Camps Program at Scott Field Post/Vicksburg Post and the value it provides?
Scott Field: We support the SAME/Air Force Engineering & Construction Camp at Scott AFB, Ill. Our campers have the opportunity to enjoy a variety of experiences on the base, such as using the gyms and dining facility, living in military tents, and interacting with servicemembers.
Since we only have five days to make a team out of complete strangers, we start off with teambuilding activities. Campers go on to participate in events that take them through hands-on engineering problems as well as designing and building things like a dog house and cardboard boat.
Additionally, we take the campers offsite to see the partnerships that civilian companies have with the base and the community. For instance, by visiting a local Sustaining Member firm to mix and test their own concrete cylinders, students gain a theoretical understanding of engineering principles and apply it to real-life scenarios. I can’t think of another opportunity available that gives youth access to such a varied array of STEM careers in such a meaningful way.
Vicksburg: The Vicksburg Post runs the SAME/Army Engineering & Construction Camp. Each year, 40 campers are competitively selected to attend the camp. The students, who come from across the country, engage in hands-on engineering and construction activities under the mentorship and supervision of SAME professionals and others from the local engineering community.
The camp curriculum includes interaction with representatives of architecture/engineering firms, construction companies, military leaders, and employees from the Army Corps of Engineers. The value of this is that we are helping to grow STEM through the interactions of this camp.
SAME: How does your Post support the camp at a local level?
Scott Field: We are fortunate enough in our area to have an amazing coalition of Posts that offer significant support to the camp. Both the St. Louis Post and Scott Field Post provide a large amount of the leadership planning and staffing. Other Posts provide either mentors or financial support to keep the camp well-funded so we can provide the best experience for our campers.
It amazes me every year how our network of engineers comes up with some amazing volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. Our camp would be much smaller and much less impressive without the support of the nearby Posts.
Vicksburg: At the local level, Post members are heavily involved in the planning and execution of the camp each year. They participate as instructors, mentors, cooks, and logistics staff.
And not only do our members donate their time, but they directly contribute their own finances to make the camp happen.
SAME: What would you say are the keys to engaging mentors and volunteers for the camp?
Scott Field: When engaging mentors and volunteers for the camp, it is important to focus on the long-lasting effects of the camp. It is a big ask for someone to dedicate an entire week, nights included, to staff a camp. For many, the first time they hear about our camp is through other SAME members who are raving about the cool experiences that happened in previous years. When a potential staffer hears about the impact they can have, they are often eager to jump at the opportunity to serve, but need their employer’s support to make it happen. We have mentors that still keep in touch with former campers and guide and mentor these engineers of the future.
It takes a multitude of skills to run a camp. Some people want to be as close to the action as possible, but it also takes many folks behind the scenes to put the entire event together. Handbooks need to be designed and printed, supplies need to be purchased and stored, and local engineering firms need to be coordinated with to ensure the best possible programs for our campers. Regardless of your skillset, I can almost guarantee that every volunteer leaves our camp with more than they brought with them. Growth doesn’t just occur within our campers; our staff grows as well!
Vicksburg: The key to engaging mentors is to approach them with a personal appeal of being able to make a difference in the lives of the students attending the camp.
We have a core group of dedicated volunteers who come back every year to help. The camp has become a part of the community because of the long-term impact so many volunteers have made year after year. Our mentors, though, are typically young engineers from either government or our Sustaining Member firms. We know that their week onsite as mentors is an invaluable leader development opportunity.
SAME: How do you see the Camps Program supporting Goal 4 of the 2025 SAME Strategic Plan to enrich the STEM pipeline for the nation?
Scott Field: The Camp Program helps enrich the STEM pipeline by taking those young adults who are already interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and challenging them to go deeper and explore the possibilities available in this profession. Additionally, the program brings together students and mentors from local industry. These mentors give the campers firsthand knowledge about what the career fields are like and how rewarding a career in STEM can be.
The students are not only challenged with hands-on activities, they are tasked with coming together as a group of strangers and working as a team to accomplish specific outcomes. This skill will benefit them as they progress throughout their lives into the leaders of tomorrow.
Aside from the many other growth opportunities that are present, these two alone help ensure our nation’s future has competent leaders prepared to keep us globally competitive.
Vicksburg: The Army Camp has exposed over 800 kids to engineering over the last two decades, with a tremendous number who have gone on to study STEM in college and become leaders in our field. This directly supports Goal 4. We are making a difference.
SAME: What are the biggest challenges to the Camps Program, and how are you addressing them?
Scott Field: Right now, COVID restrictions are our biggest challenge—but we are working through the federal and state guidelines to do the best with what we have. Next would be volunteers. We need employers to see the value to the industry and their own companies in sending their people to staff the camp for an entire week. The students could eventually be employees to those same companies, all because of the lasting impact of the camp.
Last would be getting the word out to the hard-to-reach students. We need to keep up with the world and how students these days are getting information and use that to our advantage. We are starting a social media campaign to mirror trending videos to lead the potential campers to the registration website.
Vicksburg: For the last several years, the biggest challenge has been navigating COVID issues. Under normal circumstances, though, funding has been the biggest challenge.
As we look forward, ensuring the camp remains effective in delivering a positive and meaningful experience for the students is dependent on staffing, programming, and resources.
SAME: What advice would you give to other Posts, either those who have established camps programs or those who may be looking to start one?
Scott Field: To those Posts looking to start a new camp, I would suggest sending a member to staff one of SAME’s five national camps that we have available. The best way to get a feel for it is to be in the middle of it. As a mentor, you will get direct knowledge of what these camps can accomplish and then take that back to your Post and apply it to what is needed in your area. It is not realistic to start this type of camp at every Post in the country, especially given that each of the camps run in partnership with the military services are national-level efforts as well, coordinated and managed with direct support of the SAME National Office. But every Post has a K-12 STEM Outreach Program that can be enriched with the lessons learned from our camps.
Each week is different and we can all learn from one another to make the camps better. The camp at Scott AFB was built around the experiences that staff had at other camps. We combined that knowledge with the talents available through local Sustaining Member firms and made our program unique.
Vicksburg: The best thing is to learn from the success of the other camps. All of the camp directors are willing to share information on how we do what we do. Also, many other SAME Posts host one-day camps or events that are shorter than a full week, which has considerably more logistics to work out. Additionally, some support existing camps that are run principally by another organization and the local Post is in a complementary role.
At the end of the day, STEM outreach is about making an impact, delivering quality, and reaching as many youth as we can. And there are many ways we can all do that.