The Social Engineering Project, Inc. (TSEP) 2017 Overnight STEM Camping Conference

How A Weekend Away With 100 Students Showed Unplugging Is Good For Innovation

Kevin L. Nichols
4 min readDec 21, 2017


Many people thought I was insane for bringing more than 100 underrepresented, predominately African American and Latinx high school students from the Bay Area to the YMCA Camp Loma Mar in the Santa Cruz Mountains to learn about STEM. Not for the obvious reasons of taking 100+ students anywhere, let alone camping, but for doing so in a location without internet.

Mentors from STEM companies were presented with the challenge of communicating what they do for a living using low-tech methods in hopes of inspiring students to go to college, major in competitive degree programs, and one day become scientists and engineers.

While unconventional, I knew it could work: I had attended a similar camp when I was in high school that was organized by the National Society of Black Engineers. It was a pivotal experience for me, and I wanted to pass that experience onto others, as I did when I chaired this camp as a college student at Cal. Before this camping trip, I had helped my childhood friend organize a Science in the City Summer Camp for middle school students at Stanford. We did this for two years, through a grant from the National Science Foundation, but ran out of funding so we did not have a camp. Then Google agreed to fund us, and we launched The Social Engineering Project, Inc. (TSEP) to motivate and inspire young people to fall in love with math, science, chemistry, physics, and engineering — and pursue careers in same fields.

This was the first annual TSEP Overnight STEM Camping Conference. The students were exposed to careers that they never knew about and were free from typical distractions of texting and social media. And it paid off: The camp was not only successful, but it reminded me that we have the power to help more students pursue careers in STEM. Here’s what I learned.

1. Unplugging is good for innovation.

Even without the Internet, mentors from top tech companies were able to still teach the students about the work they do. Microsoft engineers, for example, taught a workshop on how to fix a real-life bug. The children learned how to prioritize and allocate resources to correct it. One student, Brinda A. said, “This was my favorite workshop because it allowed me to learn how to work like a developer.”

2. Students really are still fascinated about college and want to know how to get there.

Admissions officers at U.C. Berkeley came to the camp to demystify the application process. There were numerous questions about how to get into college and what college life was like.

3. Students need to be taught how to network like any other subject matter.

Networking is an underutilized skill that won’t happen organically — it has to be emphasized. Even in high school, making connections can have an impact far into the future. I’m a great example of that: I leveraged my relationships from high school to start TSEP and even received funding from classmates that now work at various tech companies. One student who attended PG&E’s workshop on its remediation project was able to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony of one of their new sites because she expressed interest in this career path. Another student, Jada N., said, “I went in to the trip slightly apprehensive because I had never thought about a career in engineering before, but I left with a newfound interest and appreciation for the field. My cabin and I went to the PG&E workshop and because of what I learned there, I have a new interest in the cleanup they do regarding old oil and gas manufacturing sites.”

Below are some photos from our partner company’s workshops, and feedback we received from the students themselves.

Northrop Grumman showed the students various submarines they’ve built, demonstrating how important gears are in their line of work.

GoPro’s workshop taught students about how they stabilize their drones in order to take steady video and how they test their products for water resistance.

Walmart Labs introduced our students to algorithms, explaining how their website finds the right products for its customers.

During Cisco-Meraki’s workshop, James M. said: “I loved this workshop because I didn’t know how wireless things are programmed.”

Finally, the Artisan Hub taught our students the concepts behind 3D printing using construction paper and large books. Jossalin D. said: “I really liked the 3D printing because they kept me interested the whole time.”

You can learn more about The Social Engineering Project, Inc. and their programs here.

This post originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s digital magazine.



Kevin L. Nichols

The Social Engineer ™ — Litigation, Diversity, Tech, and Professional/Business Development/Social Media Consultant. Entrepreneur and nonprofit advisor.