Bringing discovery to the community

Discovery Western is the kind of camp mad scientists might have gone to as children.

Chloë Nicholson-Smith, director of the program, has a very simple explanation for what goes on during the university-run science camp. “Lots of explosions,” she laughed.

Discovery Western has been running weekly day camps to give children hands-on experience in engineering, science, and technology for the last 24 years. The organization, a not-for-profit run by Western Engineering and staffed by students, strives to increase the awareness of, and cultivate interest in, engineering and technology in young people in London and surrounding communities.


For a few weeks during the summer, science isn’t about grades. It’s about how much fun learning can be.

Hence the explosions.

Hilary Stone, 19, one of the senior instructors with Discovery Western, helps develop the camp’s projects. She said, although the camp follows the Ontario public school science curriculum, there is plenty of room for creativity.

“We kind of play around with things until we find a cool project,” said the second-year Chemical Engineering student. “You always have to tinker with it on the day of.”

One such project has become a camp staple.

The Lego Robolab involves building battle robots out of Lego and pitting them against each other. The older campers even use computers to program the robots and sensors to help them move and target each other. Even experienced engineering students are surprised by the campers’ ingenuity.

“When they get the sensors going, they get pretty impressive,” said Nicholson-Smith, 21, who is finishing her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering this year.

The camp gives about 120 children a chance to learn about different kinds of engineering, from electrical to civil. Stone said the campers usually pick things up quickly.

“They do have some ‘light-bulb moments,’ especially during electrical,” she joked.

Discovery Western’s general programs include weekly summer camps, which run during July and August in London, Sarnia and Port Elgin, and elementary school workshops, offered to schools around southwestern Ontario during May and June. Many elementary schools take advantage of the opportunity to do experiments and projects with equipment they could not otherwise afford. These workshops range from the Lego Robolab to instruction on the principles of flight.

The school workshops are taught by the six senior instructors hired by Discovery Western. Junior instructors are hired to assist them during the summer camps. There are also volunteer positions.

The program has grown in recent years, mainly because it was merged with the Faculty of Engineering.

Lesley Mounteer, associate director of external services for the faculty, said resources go right back into the organization.

“Any money we do have in surplus, we put into programming,” she said.

An important aspect of this expansion has been Discovery Western’s increased focus on getting girls interested in engineering and science.

“Engineering still is a male-dominated university program,” Mounteer said. Around 20 per cent  of Canadian undergraduate engineering students are female, and Western is no different. Discovery Western aims to change that.

“It’s a very, very high priority,” she said.

One way Discovery Western is catering to female campers is by offering girls-only programs, including weekend programs during the winter and a camping retreat. It appears to be working.

“Our girls camp doubled from 2012 to 2013,” Nicholson-Smith said.

Discovery Western is mainly funded through camp registration fees, which are around $200, and corporate sponsorships. There are bursaries available. Its major sponsor is Actua, an organization that promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics among Canadian youth. Other major sponsors include Ontario Power Generation, General Dynamics and 3M. The latter donates one of the most important things of all: Popsicle sticks.

“We can go through thousands of polar sticks,” Nicholson-Smith said. The sticks are used for projects like building bridges and other structures.

The projects aren’t always strictly organized.

“Often the workshops are creative,” Stone said. “We say ‘Here’s what you need to do and here’s your materials’ and they do their thing.”