Life Lessons

The Shelby Summer Scholars Program makes science real and relevant for kids

As I walk into the Fogelman College of Business at the University of Memphis, I overhear a teacher saying, “and next, you’ll learn how to set a broken bone.” The students around her respond enthusiastically, “Man, that’s going to be cool!” “This is awesome,” and “I can’t wait.” 

It’s real-life learning in a setting far from the confines of a middle school classroom. The Shelby Summer Scholars Institute (SSSI) brings together middle school students from across the county who share a love of science. Educational grants and local donors support this two-week camp, which convenes each June on the UM campus. Now in its sixth year, students gather for intensive sessions that focus on math, science, and technology.

As I enter a classroom, I find a cluster of students working on calculating the mass of a GI Joe and Barbie doll. They are trying to determine which alternative energy systems for transportation would be most helpful in the face of a natural disaster. This year, SSSI focused on how communities administer disaster relief. Interactive activities such as these teach students how to problem solve and work as a team in order to address the issues that arise following a tornado or earthquake. The camp’s five learning stations included bridge construction and stabilization, robotics, solar-powered car, potable water, and a triage station. 

Each station followed the concept of Rescue, Respond, and Restore (RRR), the RRR method used by the military and local rescue supports agencies. Dedrick McGhee, SSSI’s science curriculum coordinator, says what students are really learning here are life skills. “The students not only use a problem-solving approach during the camp, they also learn better ways to solve problems through the use of critical-thinking skills, and team-building exercises.” 

Participants are chosen through a competitive application process that includes writing an essay on why they want to attend. Hannah Liang of Houston Middle and Aidan Fimple of Arlington Middle tell me their favorite activities include the robotics station and working collaboratively with other like-minded teens. As the kids transition from station to station, a lead teacher and support staff help them with their tasks. McGhee says the teachers, who come from the city and county systems, are chosen much like the students, based on their love of teaching science and math; additional support staff include high school students and Naval Support personnel from Millington. 

Since the camp focuses on the STEM curriculum model (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), the Naval support personnel prove a great asset to the camp, showing students how science and technology can be used beyond the classroom. 

McGhee says not only do students learn to work as a group, but they get to strengthen public speaking skills. Once a group completes a station, they present their projects, which this year includes building robots that search for survivors, and showing how to triage a storm victim.

After the two-week camp is over, students vote on the best projects, which are then presented to families, community members, and donors. “The students present their projects in a large auditorium in the FedEx Institute known as The Zone. It’s pretty amazing what they accomplish,” says McGhee. And kids aren’t the only ones who gain new skills. The Teacher Effectiveness Measurement (TEM), the evaluation tool being utilized in Tennessee public schools to evaluate teachers' yearly progress, is also a driving force behind the curriculum development and teaching strategies employed during SSSI camp.  

“The teachers are gaining so much by participating in the camp,” says McGhee. They take away great teaching strategies that can be utilized in their schools after the camp concludes that will not only benefit the students they serve, but their colleagues as well.” • For additional information about the SSSI camp and how to donate to the program, go to or contact Dedrick McGhee, 218-5294.


— Memphis writer Susan Elswick is the proud mother of three, the wife of an extremely talented husband, and a licensed school social worker.

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