SEAS students use their winter break to run STEM camp in South Africa

Seven UB students pose for a group photo.

These University at Buffalo students made up seven of the sixteen camp volunteers. From left to right: Salvatore Pino , Katelyn Hilko , Rachel Williams, Anna Walsh, Elise Dougherty, Isobel Stanger, Daniella Kata

By Elizabeth Egan 

Published February 7, 2024

What once started as a pen pal program connecting Western New York families with students in South Africa has blossomed into a weeklong STEM camp in South Africa thanks to the efforts of several University at Buffalo students.

“The camp was an overwhelming success, and I can confidently say it has made a lasting impact on both volunteers and students who attended. ”
Anna Walsh , Biomedical Engineering Student

Over the 2023 and 2024 winter break, Anna Walsh, a senior studying biomedical engineering, and several other UB students traveled to the Holy Cross School in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), South Africa, to run a weeklong STEM camp for kindergarten to seventh grade students.

Walsh started the pen-pal program with Holy Cross in 2019, while she was still in high school, getting involved through a family friend who lives in Durban, South Africa.

“In reflecting on my decision to pursue an education in STEM, I was thinking of all the mentors and STEM influence I have had over the years,” said Walsh.

Remembering the mentors she has had in the STEM industry and the fond classroom memories of performing science experiments from as early as fourth grade, Walsh wondered if she would have had the motivation to pursue engineering in college without those experiences.

Walsh floated the idea for the camp by the organization that supports the school, Love Must Act, Inc., a United States-based nonprofit focused on creating sustainable education partnerships around the globe, which started the initial planning process. Walsh even took a pilot trip to the school in the summer of 2022 to test out lessons.

“Our goal is simple: bring STEM to the students for a week and make it fun,” said Walsh. “The goal was not to make sure they understand every little physics principle or how to write a perfect code, but to give every student confidence in their ideas and skills.”

The first year of the camp was open to fourth through seventh grade students. This year’s camp, which was held Jan. 15-19, added a modified program for students in kindergarten through third grade.

College studen helping three elementary age students with a building project.

Elise Dougherty, UB chemical engineering student, works with three Holy Cross students to build a hydraulic arm. 

Each day, the students traveled to five stations: structures, junior engineer, SCIENCE!, robotics and physical education. Stations were run by volunteers from UB. Two high school students from the U.S. and four from the Makhanda area also participated as classroom volunteers.

Isobel Stanger, a senior studying civil engineering, heard about the camp and thought it would be an exciting opportunity to get to share her knowledge of science and engineering with young students.

Stanger taught the junior engineer class. Every day, they completed a different project covering, topics like kinetic and potential energy, pressure, and other fundamental physics concepts. The projects were designed to allow the students to be creative and determine independently what methods and techniques worked for them.  

“One of my favorite things about teaching the children was seeing their brains click once they understood a concept or how a design worked and then continue to build on top of it,” said Stanger. "I was proud of how well the kids listened and tried on each project. Even if they felt discouraged at the beginning, they continued to persevere and work through their problems."

Rachel Williams, a senior studying civil engineering, helped run the structures class. She guided the students in building newspaper bridges, testing the strength of balsa wood and glue connections, and gauging the stability of their projects on an earthquake-simulating shake table.

“My best memory from the camp was from the third day when we had the students draw out designs of their tower,” said Williams. “All of the students, even the younger ones, included some of the structural design concepts that we had taught them and some of the students had really creative ideas. This was when I realized that the students were understanding and retaining the things we were teaching them.”

Walsh shared that one of her favorite parts about returning for a second year of the camp was seeing how much of the information the students had retained from the year before.

“The camp was an overwhelming success, and I can confidently say it has made a lasting impact on both volunteers and students who attended,” said Walsh, who hopes to stay involved with the camp even after she graduates in May.

Walsh’s long-term goal is to attend medical school and remain involved in the camp, incorporating more education-based health care programs. When she has finished her medical training, Walsh hopes to eventually spend more time in the area and help to build sustainable health clinics.