Using popular culture themes to teach scientific concepts is a well-known pedagogic strategy. Previous outreach programs have asserted that science outreach impact is lessened unless it can capture and hold the attention of the audience.9 To this end, the primary goal of the summer program was to use pop-culture themes to broaden the appeal of scientific topics. With the uprise of TikTok® videos during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed a likely way to engage youth and their families into scientific and engineering concepts; however, it is important to note that it is not required that students have a formal account on TikTok® or that students use TikTok® at all to complete this activity. Given the unpredictable variance that may come through adolescent exposure to social media platforms, it is important to impart that students have options to engage with any dance culture to provide content for their personal conduction of motion analysis.
During the execution of this activity, two of the common challenges for students were: (1) having access to computer hardware capable of handling the demands for installing and running the required software, and (2) establishing sufficient dance models from which their dancing abilities could be compared analytically. With respect to the technological demands, ImageJ is a widely used program but involves frequent updates and patches. This presented issues with computers not being able to meet those updated demands and some even having issues with administrative download restrictions placed on their devices by the schools before issuing the computers to students for remote learning. As it relates to having a model dance to base student dancing abilities off of, the authors had to digitally place tracking dots on a prerecorded video to standardize the model dancing profiles. This is a capability that most may not have; therefore, to run this activity effectively it will be important that explanation and standard dance models be made available to the students so that they can conduct their analysis in the least biased way possible.
This activity seemed particularly successful at engaging students with their household members and engaging those other household members in the engineering learning process. The students were able to better draw conclusions regarding the differences in people with differing physical builds and biomechanical limitations through working with family members who may have been older, younger, or who possessed different injury histories than themselves. Their experiences engaging with household members added much value to our group reflection time during the follow-up portion of the camp.
Research by Bell, Lewenstein, Souse, and Feder in 2009 showed that informal learning has a range of outcomes that can supersede traditional learning in an academic setting.2 A traditional classroom setting is not an environment restricted to one-on-one interaction, and therefore the dynamics and perceptions of multiple relationships should be considered6; furthermore, much of the learning in these settings is invisible and taken for granted, and thus, is hard to measure.15 Further still, there is a hidden social meaning-making process in informal learning that can be missed if not designed in a culturally supportive way for a community.15 The pedagogic approach used here attempts to foster opportunities for the social meaning-making process and to develop learning rapport between participating students and their respective household members by explicitly soliciting the participation of those household members into the engineering activity process. The camp provided additional tools and strategies that campers were encourages to use to form organic study groups, to share and discuss activity processes and outcomes including a camp-specific chat platform and small group assignments that were consistent throughout the duration of the camp. While a handful of students used these spaces for discussing the lab activities, the majority of participants used their family members as their learning community for this activity. This design circumvented the typical isolation associated with virtual learning. It can be expected that the student and their respective household member(s) may be coming into the learning space with differing experience levels with the content, in which case it has been shown by Nelson and DeBacker that spending time to develop interpersonal student–student rapport yields a peer climate conducive to achievement, belongingness, and academic efficacy.13 In a family-oriented and accessible STEM learning context, establishing activity participants as learning peers and fostering a sense of belongingness amongst those who the camp activity is not primarily designed for are of great importance to further support the learning efficacy of the student camper. In these cases, the camper took on an instructional, facilitation role to bring family members into the shared lab experience.
McClellan developed a model for the process of individual learning in informal settings where the learner must choose to transform existing knowledge, hinting at the influence of community learning and a sociocultural perspective.12 Building on this theory, Marsick & Watkins emphasized that negotiation that occurs in informal settings can lead to disruption of held beliefs and encourages intermixing of beliefs. This then will lead to a new commonly held belief within the group.11 This informal learning model from Marsick and Watkins claims that groups will go through a series of steps to reconcile concepts within a social context, building to a group held belief before entering into the activity of the group as a whole.11 This is applicable here, in that challenges will inevitably arise for students as they proceed through the bioengineering activity—during which time they will form their own interpretations and beliefs about the provided content—but having an accessible household learning community gives rise to opportunities for group context building, reshaping of those newly formed previously held beliefs, and establishing meaningful rapport through shared struggles with content. It cannot be understated the value in renegotiating the meaning of complex STEM content among a group of co-learners, whether this means family members of peers.
Another theoretical principle that informs this program is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.3 When designing a learning environment, the instructor should attend to all aspects of teaching, particularly its social nature. Vygotsky stressed the importance of experts actively attending to the subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of the learning process. These aspects of learning include cultural funds of knowledge that can be used to motivate students. When discussing the learning process, Vygotsky asserted that higher mental functions emerge in a novice, through social interactions with an expert/teacher that are later internalized.3 In this unique learning context, the roles of expert and teacher are shared between the student who is interested in potentially becoming an expert in the area and their household members who will have a wide range of social and life experiences that will add to the negotiation of the understanding of the STEM content. Scholars believed that an active student is a motivated student. Therefore, learning how to identify, use, or even create motivation in students is critical for formal and informal educators and should be core to any instructional material. These principles will ensure that we are reaching our target audience, that these families are engaged and learning intended content and skills, and that we have laid the groundwork for their long-term interest.
Finally, we are interested in continuing to evaluate our summer program, but with greater emphasis on understanding it as an educational tool. Due to limitations in time to develop and implement, we did not attempt to assess participant learning, whether through participant self-reflection or more formal assessment. This is critical as research has shown that informal education events play a pivotal role in promoting STEM fields, as well as encouraging and deepening science learning.10 Though we developed the summer program in accordance with the National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) recommendations on informal environments and strengthening links between formal and informal science learning,10 we intend to more formally evaluate its educational capacity and impact in the future.
We are pleased with what we accomplished in a short time to offer a quality and enjoyable virtual summer camp experience. These simple strategies can be easily employed by other BME educators, and we hope others will feel encouraged to adopt our techniques and materials to launch a similar virtual summer camp at their own institution.