ECU’s STEMx camp introduces tech, coding to youth

Middle and high school students from five economically distressed tier 1 North Carolina counties made up the STEMx training and hackathon youth camp in the Department of Technology Systems.

The Department of Defense’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, ECU’s Office of National Security and Industry Initiatives in the Office of Research, Economic Development and Engagement (REDE), the NCEast Alliance and Trenchant Analytics supported the camp designed to inspire students to attend college and choose a career in STEM. The 16 students worked with computer programming and coding, learned about robotics, heard from industry experts, toured a Hyster-Yale facility and participated in a hackathon in which teams competed using computer programming.

“I really like that we were able to do hands-on stuff and do it on our own with help after they explained what it is,” said Kara Williams, 16, from the Lake Mattamuskeet area. “Working with Python (programming), they explained what it was, but then we got to work with it.”

The students enjoyed social activities that included basketball, pickleball and dinners together, and designed and printed their own camp T-shirts in the Isley Innovation Hub. They also stayed in the residence halls for the week.

“That was more normal than I thought it would be,” Williams said of living in the residence halls.


Gavin Banks, 12, from Maysville in Jones County, said he enjoyed the camp.

“They’re teaching us something, but it doesn’t seem like schoolwork,” he said.  “I’ve always been interested in Python, tech and coding, and this is letting me do that. The whole thing has been enjoyable.”

The middle school student said he already has a good idea about what he wants to do in his career.

“I’m interested in engineering and building,” Banks said. “I want to be able to build something from start to finish.”

One highlight included a tour of the new Hyster-Yale Group Emerging Technology Center at Intersect East on the ECU Research and Innovation Campus. Hyster-Yale designs, engineers, manufactures, sells and services a line of lift trucks and aftermarket parts that are used in distribution centers, warehouses, and port and logistics facilities all over the world. The tour provided the students and teachers a view of how the projects they’ve been working on during the STEMx camp could set them on a path to well-paying and rewarding careers developing, testing and manufacturing new technologies and equipment at Hyster-Yale.

Students work on a programming exercise as part of the STEMx youth camp.

Hyster-Yale showcased its latest technological advances designed by company engineers to help improve safety and efficiency, including self-driving lifts with sensors to help avoid workplace accidents, telemetry systems that record and analyze data collected remotely, and advances in truck power components that help support customer initiatives on emissions reduction. The tour also gave Hyster-Yale a chance to meet youth from across eastern North Carolina who will be able to step into the roles needed for the company’s future.

“We aimed to inspire these bright students with a firsthand glimpse of their power to shape our future,” said Crissy​ Gaskins, director of commissioning emerging technology at Hyster-Yale. “Through automation and data analytics, they’re set to architect a future of positive transformation. We are proud to be a part of that.”

Dr. Ciprian Popoviciu, assistant professor in the Department of Technology Systems, spearheaded the camp, along with Steve Baker, teaching instructor in technology systems.

“The goals are to get the kids excited about STEM and hopefully get them interested in going to college and working for the Department of Defense,” Popoviciu said.

Popoviciu said plenty of people have worked together to offer the students a valuable and fun learning experience. ECU faculty and staff also provided informational sessions to encourage the students to stick with STEM, explaining the lucrative and innovative careers that are available.

“The whole idea is to talk to them about what is possible,” Popoviciu said.

Keith Wheeler, executive director of the Office of National Security and Industry Initiatives, said REDE made connections with the NCEast Alliance, community partners and the Department of Defense (DoD), and then sought help from College of Engineering and Technology faculty and staff to put the camp together.

“We’re hosting ENC students who had not heard of Raspberry Pi or Python and didn’t know they could work for DoD someday,” Wheeler said. “The efforts of the ECU team will change all that and open a view to a new future for them. We appreciate our partners at Trenchant Analytics for making this possible and look forward to making this program even better next year.”

Dr. Ciprian Popoviciu, assistant professor in the ECU Department of Technology Systems, helps a student during a programming exercise as part of the STEMx youth camp.