Last week, students from AIM’s Upward Bound programs at Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson high schools traveled to Chicago and Florida respectively for campus visits to multiple universities. AIM Institute staff members chaperoned the trip. In addition to the college tours, students enjoyed a variety of STEM experiences and fun cultural activities.

For students, the campus visits represented years of AIM Upward Bound programming. Upward Bound is a federal TRIO program that helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in their precollege performance, and ultimately in their pursuit of higher education, through specialized academic instruction, mentoring, counseling, cultural enrichment activities, and work-study programs. AIM coordinates Upward Bound programs and provides free technology education through the Brain Exchange at five area high schools.

Palm Trees and Cartesian Planes

Twenty students from Thomas Jefferson High traveled to Orlando, Florida, to visit the University of Central Florida and experience STEM exhibits at the Universal Studios theme park. The group left early Thursday morning. Many students had not flown in a plane before.

“Watching some students fly in an airplane for the first time, particularly watching their reactions when we went above the clouds where the sun was shining over the clouds, was inspiring,” said AIM Upward Bound Project Director Tanya Jacha, one of the chaperones for the trip. “It was good to see some students overcome their fear of flying so that this will not hinder them in their college and career decision-making.”

After arriving in Orlando, the group had a free day to adjust to the new climate.

On Friday, students participated in a scavenger hunt at the University of Central Florida (UCF). The scavenger hunt was designed as a kind of college-survival exercise, so students could practice learning how to find the most important parts of a campus. At times, they had to ask for help from UCF students, who were glad to help them.

Sophomore Camaryn Belt covered the trip for her broadcasting class. She shot video and photographs (including the one above), took notes, and conducted interviews with students and chaperones. She said the UCF campus was huge and full of amenities, including well-known restaurants, sports stadiums, shops, even a hair salon. According to the university’s website, there are more students enrolled at UCF than at any other U.S. educational institution.

On Saturday, the group visited Universal Studios Florida and participated in a STEM activity called Kongtrol Panel. Kongtrol Panel gives students the chance to use the engineering principles they’ve learned in their Upward Bound coursework to control a simulated version of the King Kong-themed ride Skull Island: Reign of Kong™. Students plot coordinates on a Cartesian plane to program simulated vehicles safely around increasingly difficult tracks. Then the students rode the actual ride, experiencing the power of engineering technology firsthand.

A Long Ride to Chicago

Nine students from Abraham Lincoln took a trip to Chicago to visit the Illinois Institute of Technology and experience the cultural resources of a big city. The group left Wednesday morning, traveling by bus to Davenport for an overnight stay.

On Thursday, before leaving for Chicago, students toured Davenport’s St. Ambrose University, a private liberal arts institution. After the tour, they visited Putnam Science Museum. Students used hands-on technology to interact with various aspects of STEM, including the physics of sound waves and the geology and natural history of the Iowa-Illinois region.  

“They all thought the museum would be boring, but they all ended up loving it,” said Hannah Rotschafer, social media & email specialist for AIM Institute and one of the chaperones for the trip.

Following the Putnam Museum, the group drove to Chicago. They visited the Navy Pier and then divided into groups to eat dinner downtown. Each student received an $85 stipend at the beginning of the trip and had to figure out how to make it last until they returned home.

Rotschafer said she enjoyed watching the students think critically about their budgets. “It was fun to see them say, ‘Oh, maybe we shouldn’t do this–I know it seems like fun, but it’s kind of expensive.’ I was like, ‘Welcome to adulthood,’” she said.

On Friday, the group toured the Illinois Institute of Technology, a prestigious private research university in Chicago that integrates tech into every program. The students learned about cutting-edge technologies, such as 3D-printed organs and social media marketing machine learning.

After the campus tour, the group visited the Skydeck at Willis Tower and the Lincoln Park Zoo. While the view from the Skydeck was impressive, the zoo was a bit of a letdown.

“I think we had a lot of high expectations because we come from Omaha and have one of the best zoos in the world,” Rotschafer said.  

On Saturday, the last day of the trip, the group embarked on the long drive back to Council Bluffs. They stopped in Davenport again and watched an IMAX movie about ocean science and technology before returning home.

Importance of the Trips

Campus trips are important for Upward Bound students, who would not otherwise have the opportunity to visit universities outside of their immediate vicinity. Rotschafer said such trips help youth make informed decisions about the higher education they want to pursue.

“I think a lot of kids learned what they don’t want in a college, which I think is equally as important as figuring out what you do like,” Rotschafer said.

Jacha said the trips also help enlarge students’ view of the world and open their minds to new possibilities, new futures.

“It was incredible to just see their perspectives of the world completely blown out of the box they were in,” Jacha said.

In post-trip evaluations, students expressed sincere gratitude for their experiences.

“We’re all really grateful we got this opportunity,” said Thomas Jefferson sophomore Abby Tauge. “These things encourage us and better us for our education.”