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Tuesday, Feb 21, 2017
South Tampa News

Middle schoolers learn concepts at Tampa camp for young engineers

TAMPA - Stephan Athan is a self-proclaimed geek. He always has loved to take things apart and figure out how they work. He taught his daughter how microchips work when she was 4 years old. Once, on a trip with his wife, he insisted on making a stop at a coal processing plant whose smokestacks he saw in the distance. This year Athan is spending his summer conducting an experiment he says is unique. An engineer and former professor at the University of South Florida, he has created a two-week engineering summer camp for middle school students. During the four-day-a-week sessions of the Engineering Minds camp, he wants to challenge middle schoolers in ways they never have been challenged, he said.
The students will learn engineering concepts and terminology while doing exercises in creativity, public speaking and entrepreneurship. "I teach everything we learn in industry," Athan said. "Everything that I've spent the last 33 years learning." Athan, who lives in South Tampa's Palma Ceia neighborhood, said he has spent the past 20 years fine-tuning his teaching model. Even though he now works for a defense contractor in St. Petersburg, he still teaches computer science and mechanical engineering classes at USF and tutors young adults who have gone on to jobs at places such as NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. His goal is to make learning engineering fun and easy, he said. If young people are engaged and encouraged early on - while they still have the creative minds of children - imagine the engineers they will become, Athan said. "I try to get these kids as plugged in as possible as quickly as possible," Athan said. But he warns that Engineering Minds is not the same as a summer camp at MOSI. He is looking for high-achieving science students, the "born engineers who are just waiting to be challenged," Athan said. Parents and teachers recognize them right away, he said. Athan has worked with a sixth grader with a passion for particle physics and nuclear radiation. He tutors another boy who is so advanced that Athan had to explain to him what intellectual property is, because "it's a guarantee" that he will win a Nobel Prize one day, he said. "This is a very, very vigorous program," Athan said. And despite the pressure put on teachers to enhance their science and technology curriculums, Athan firmly believes it takes an engineer to teach engineering. That's where the summer camp comes in. Every afternoon during the camp, Athan has scheduled speakers from institutions such as Caltech, MIT and Harvard to talk to the students about what it's like to work in the field. And every day, the kids will make presentations to the group about a different invention. He has the support of the school district, which helped him distribute information and develop the curriculum for the new camp. "He is a brilliant mind and he'll do a wonderful job with the kids that enroll, I have no doubt," said Larry Plank, director for K12 STEM education for the district. He called Athan a true asset to the community and the district during the national and state movement to embrace engineering education. Athan and two other engineers will lead the camp, which he wants to cap at about 20 students. Eventually, Athan said, he wants to expand the program to include elementary and high school students. But for the first year he will focus on middle schoolers. They have the beginnings of a science education in school and still have the creativity of young children, he said. "We get them to feel, literally, like they can change the world," he said. Athan said his camp and his teaching model will help meet a need for engineering education for high-achieving students. "I plan to spend the rest of my life doing this," he said. Ebehrman@Tampatrib.com (813)259-7691 Twitter: @LizBehrmanTBO