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Young Dragons Spread Their Wings with Technology

By Christian DeBrady

young dragons children learning

DREXEL UNIVERSITY - Many pre-teens and teenagers often find themselves wishing school could involve how they enjoy spending time instead of feeling like a chore. As important as formal education can be, students sometimes find that the interests most important to them just aren’t taught in the classroom.

Young Dragons, a free summer camp for rising 6th to 8th graders living or attending school in West Philadelphia’s Promise Zone, embraces bringing fun to career preparation. Since beginning in 2016, the program has exposed middle school students to activities in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts/athletics, and math) using the scientific tools in Drexel’s Excite Center.  Every year, students from Science Leadership Academy, Locke, McMichael, Martha Washington, and Belmont Charter School take advantage of the chance to learn with Young Dragons over the summer.  

This year, Young Dragons is hosting three separate week-long camps focused on Minecraft, building your own PC, and coding. Jill Reilly, who has spent five years teaching with Young Dragons, likes that it gives campers freedom to choose what they enjoy. “They can sign up for individual weeks by their interests, so some kids really into gaming just came for Minecraft week, and others are just registered for the PC or the coding camps. But there are also plenty of kids who sign up for two or all three weeks and want to learn something new.”

Young Dragons takes an engaging approach to teaching. Every weekday at 9 am, they start with a game or icebreaker activity where kids work together, work on the week’s topic until the campers are given food and time to talk during their 10:30 break, and go back to learning until noon. Two Drexel graduate students and two undergraduate mentors join social and learning activities and help campers when they need it, but also ask questions so they can think for themselves. Tajma Cameron, a Ph. D student who mentors for Young Dragons and studies how informal STEAM spaces act as counterspaces (“safe spaces” for students underrepresented in STEAM fields to learn), says the interactive teaching drew her to the program. In Cameron’s words, “[Young Dragons] allows students to develop as STEAM learners while motivating and encouraging them to succeed.”

young dragons children learning

Camp was held virtually during 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19, and while the program was able to share content through their webpage so children could learn from home, returning to in-person instruction has helped create an open learning environment. According to Reilly, what she loves most about being back is the energy students bring with them. “I’d have to say my favorite thing is the opportunity to work with West Philly kids,” Reilly says, “seeing how excited they are to know more and use what we show them is amazing.”

Andy Stutzman, the Young Dragons instructor for “Build Your Own PC” week, shares that feeling. “Before [working with Young Dragons] I taught high schoolers, and with a younger group I can really see how excited [the campers] are about what they’re learning. They also surprise me with what they already know; some of them don’t have access to computers at home and still jump at the chance to show they can do things I haven’t even finished teaching yet,” Stutzman said with a grin.

The fact that many people in West Philadelphia’s Promise Zone have no internet access is something he keeps in mind during lessons. During “Build Your Own PC” week, campers can keep the computers they make, which for some is their first personal computer. This is what Tajma Cameron calls Young Dragons’ “commitment to equitable learning” regardless of income or race, and lets kids build on what they’ve learned after camp ends. According to a 2021 survey by Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology, 16% of Philadelphians don’t have high-speed broadband internet while 19% have no working desktop, and Stutzman uses these facts to show how valuable skills in technology can be. “Not everyone has a computer here, and I make sure they understand the digital divide but also that they can make money in these careers,” Stutzman points out.

young dragons children learning

Stutzman is a believer in “[turning] something you’re interested in into something you can make money from,” because it’s how he came to work with computers for close to 20 years. “You don’t often get opportunities to think about careers when you’re that young, and I wish I’d had someone to show me I could work in technology when I was their age, so I want them to know this is an option.” Young Dragons is meeting that goal according to Isaac Brown, a Science Leadership Academy Middle School student attending all three weeks of camp, who says the camp has helped him to think about his future and look forward to learning. “I’m doing all three because I wanted to learn stuff like coding and Redstone wiring in Minecraft and I can now since it’s free,” Brown says, “plus I’m learning things I know I’ll probably use in the real world.”

“Excited” is a word that comes up often at Young Dragons, whether from students excited to learn new skills or the mentors and instructors who talk about how excited they are to work with them. Anyone who finds themselves excited to get involved with Young Dragons in future summers can email or visit their webpage for more information.