One of the missions of Geering Up – the engineering outreach program at the University of British Columbia – is to teach young people about engineering, with the goal of inspiring them to go into the field as adults.
To fulfill that mission, Geering Up has traditionally held summer camps and year-round programs, often meeting people in remote and Indigenous communities in hopes of improving the diversity of the engineering profession.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the organization has been unable to follow that model during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When COVID happened, it kind of swept the rug out from under us,” said Jakob Manning, outreach manager for Geering Up, in an interview with CTV News Vancouver.
“Normally, throughout the year, we go out into communities – over 30 communities across B.C. – and work with youth,” Manning said. “This time of year, normally, we’d be working with 20,000 youth from May to August. None of that is happening right now.”
But that doesn’t mean nothing’s happening at all. In fact, the opposite is true.
Faced with the closure of schools in March and knowing that parents would be looking for online educational resources for their children, Geering Up made the decision to turn all of its usually in-person offerings into virtual ones.
“I didn’t think what we did could be done online, but the community need we serve was still there,” Manning said. “Parents were looking for educational opportunities for their kids, kids were looking for places to be creative and build things and make friends, and so we’ve moved everything we do online.”
Since March, that has meant a free daily livestream at 11 a.m. on the Geering Up YouTube channel, as well as online homework and activity clubs for which the organization charges registration fees.
Soon, it will mean online summer camps for children ranging in age from kindergarten through Grade 12. Participants will meet online for two hours each day to do activities with their instructors, many of whom are UBC engineering students. Lists of materials needed for each day’s projects will be provided in advance.
Sheryl Staub-French, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion and a professor of civil engineering at UBC, is one of the leaders of the Geering Up program. She said the online summer camp programs have been designed based on what the organization has learned from its first few months of online-only programming.
One of those takeaways has been a notable increase in demand for financial assistance for participants.
Kale Gosen works in administration support and registration for Geering Up. Last year, she said, roughly 3 per cent of families with children participating in Geering Up programs applied for and received bursaries to cover some or all of their program fees.
This year, that number has ballooned to 45 per cent, Gosen said, adding that the program has provided approximately $26,000 in bursaries so far in 2020.
Some of the surge is likely a product of increased financial hardship because of the pandemic, but organizers also deliberately sought to increase awareness of the availability of financial aid, Gosen said.
“This year, we realized things were going to be different, once COVID started and once we wanted to run our online programs,” she said. “We just made it – or tried to make it – as easy as possible, because we want people that need to come to our camps to be able to come to our camps.”
Accessibility – particularly for those who are underrepresented in the engineering field – is a key goal of Geering Up, said Staub-French.
“We need more engineers,” she said. “Engineers really are problem-solvers, and society has a lot of significant problems.”