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Summer Academy: A Learn by Doing Experience for Aspiring Mustangs

By Jarod Urrutia

Fourth-year student, Journalism

Summers are rarely a time of relaxation for Susie Sandstrom and the staff of Cal Poly’s Upward Bound program.

As program director, Sandstrom spends the bulk of her summers coordinating the university’s annual Summer Academy program, which provides 50 local high school students the opportunity to experience Learn by Doing first-hand and take their STEM expertise to new heights. Over the course of six weeks, participating students get the chance to live on campus and experience the university’s curriculum, all while taking on real-world projects that enhance their community.

“They’re not the traditional classes you get in a regular high school class,” said Sandstrom. “If they’re going to take six weeks out of their summer to come here, our programming has to be unique, dynamic and exciting.”

The academy also serves as a key component to Upward Bound’s mission. One of three federally-funded university TRiO programs at Cal Poly, Upward Bound is a pre-college program that seeks to increase high school graduation and college enrollment rates through a variety of services and opportunities for local high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program accomplishes this by meeting with participating students weekly to present college preparatory workshops and offer advising. In addition, the program assists students with college visits and hosts multiple cultural and educational events throughout each year.

“Our overarching goal is to create greater equity and access to higher education for the students we serve,” said Sandstrom. “Our Summer Academy is one of many efforts to help them reach their educational goals.”

Partners in learning

Sandstrom noted that providing students with a college-like experience through Summer Academy means leaning on the expertise of others – and a willingness to be flexible on a year-to-year basis.

“We have a think tank of faculty from our math and science departments always trying to analyze what we can improve on from the previous year,” Sandstrom noted.

Among Sandstrom’s key faculty partners is Chance Hoellwarth, who serves as director of Cal Poly’s Center for Engineering, Science and Mathematics Education (CESAME) and professor for the School of Education. Hoellwarth noted that the summer program’s 2019 curriculum was developed with three elements in mind: authentic design problems, maker education and problem-based learning.

“By solving authentic design problems, these students can Learn by Doing,” said Hoellwarth. “Students will learn maker skills, such as using 3D printers or laser cutters. Developing students’ maker skills will expand the designing and building experiences on which students can draw for their designs.”

For example, this year’s summer academy will include a course in which students create small scale homes and install electric outlets and light circuits.

Sandstrom noted that at the end of the day, the goal is to provide a robust project-based learning curriculum that challenges participating students and sets them up for future success.

“The goal is to offer them coursework that will prepare them for their upcoming courses in their academic year in high school – which often results in greater success in those classes,” she said.

Helping the local community

Another key aspect of the summer program are community projects that allow students to think critically about real-life problems and work in teams to solve them. One project, for example, calls on students to repurpose waste materials from old shoes into new, longer lasting products ranging from countertops to basketball courts.

The program will also work with Jack’s Helping Hand, a San Luis Obispo-based organization that assists children with special needs and cancer.

“Maybe there's a student that has a growth on her head and she needs a helmet that’s specific to her head size,” said Sandstrom. “Our students will go over, interview her and really get to know that student. They’ll find out her favorite color and even interview Jack’s Helping Hand staff to figure out what her other needs might be.”

Sandstrom added that all projects will utilize engineering-based design. The students will meet a series of benchmarks in the process of creating a final product that will be shown in a presentation reminiscent of the show Shark Tank. Dubbed the “Fish Tank,” the showcase will feature students’ final project designs for user groups in late July.

And while there may be several ways to measure impact, Sandstrom noted that the overall experience and growth of everyone involved in the program will serve as her truest indicator of success.

“I’ll really know the program has been successful when everybody involved — whether they are a teaching assistant, resident staff or student — can walk away from the experience and say, ‘I learned something new, I was excited to learn something new, and it was worth my time,’” she said.  “That, to me, is success.”

Interested in supporting Upward Bound and the Summer Academy program? Make a gift today at additional information about Upward Bound, visit

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