How Vertex’s New Discovery Camp Makes Summertime Learning Sizzle


It’s a perennial struggle faced by parents, teachers, and volunteers working with elementary and middle school students. How do you keep kids engaged in subjects like science, math, and technology during the sweltering summer months so that they’ll hit the ground running once school begins?

This summer, we took on that challenge with our first-ever Vertex Discovery Camp, a two-week STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) program developed in collaboration with our longstanding partner, Boston Public Schools, and i2 Learning, an innovative organization that’s redefining hands-on STEM education.

With a programmable robot named Root, a “crime scene” investigation course – complete with fingerprints, fibers, and blood splatter – and a Pen Pal program with scientists and other professionals from Vertex, the Discovery Camp made STEAM subjects come alive for approximately 100 students from five Boston-area public schools.

WATCH: The Vertex Discovery Camp in Action

Getting campers excited about STEAM was the first step. But what if we could show them that these fun and games – or what they thought were fun and games – could actually become a career? What if we connected them to real-life examples of people who were using these skills every day to make the world a better place?

As planning for the Discovery Camp got under way, Dr. Melodie Knowlton, who runs our Thomas M. Menino Vertex Learning Lab, suggested that Vertex employees write letters to all kids attending the camp. Mary-Lynn Fulton liked that idea and knew how to make it happen.

In addition to leading our Clinical Trials Management department at Vertex, Mary-Lynn co-chairs an internal employee resource network called IWILL - Inspiring Women In Leadership & Learning – that’s designed to help women become influential leaders through a focus on personal development. Mary-Lynn tapped the global IWILL network to recruit nearly 40 Vertex employees who became pen pals with the campers. On the first day of camp, students received welcome bags with letters from their Vertex pals inside.

“Our Vertex pen pals were excited to share with students what a career in STEAM can look like,” Mary-Lynn said. “Their first letters were filled with details around what they studied in school, the work they do, the reasons they enjoy math and science, as well as photos and information about themselves, including children, pets, hobbies.”

Peter Choi, an Associate Clinical Trials Manager, wrote a letter that highlighted a long-time interest in building motorcycles – a hobby that can be similar to solving a puzzle.

“In my letter, I tried to think about how I apply math and science outside of work to hopefully lend a new perspective on how seemingly ‘boring/tedious’ school subjects can help you do the things you love,” Peter said. “To my surprise later that afternoon, a colleague of mine who volunteered at the camp for the entire day, sent me a text message that my pen pal had asked about me and how he/she found my hobbies interesting and wanted to hear more.”

Another pen pal, Charis Campbell, a Principal Clinical Trials Manager, does her job remotely while working from a cattle ranch in North Dakota that’s been in her family for 100 years. She said she volunteered for the Pen Pal program as a way to “contribute to the next generation of curious kids” because so many people did the same for her growing up.

“I have always been very fortunate to cross paths with people that were willing to answer my many questions, tell me about their experiences, and give me the confidence I needed to check things out for myself,” she said. “I want to take every opportunity to do the same for others because it made such a profound impact on my life and career choices.”

“When I grow up I would like to be a Hematologist. I would like to help find other cures to blood diseases like Sickle Cell Anemia.”

- Vertex Discovery Camp participant

Discovery Camp activities also included a field trip to our Vertex headquarters, where employee volunteers helped campers participate in variety of hands-on STEAM activities – from battleship pipetting to a 3-D printing introduction to a gene mutation art project – at our Learning Lab. Throughout the program, students met a diverse array of Vertex scientists and business professionals, as part of a lunchtime speaker series designed to inspire the next generation of scientists and researchers.

In addition, we also purchased copies of a young adult book, Charlie Numbers and the Man on the Moon, for each camper and every middle school student in Boston Public Schools, and campers had the opportunity to meet one of the authors, Tonya Mezrich, in a special interactive session.

As the campers drafted return letters, they seemed to relish the opportunity to connect with their pen pals – sharing everything from hobbies to camp experiences to career aspirations. And for the Vertex pen pals?

According to Charis, the opportunity to volunteer with Discovery Camp participants “feeds my soul,” she said. “It reminds me that even a small effort like writing a warm note and sharing a little personal information about myself lets them know we are just normal people that are still curious. My goal is to give them the little extra confidence needed for them to see themselves in our shoes someday.”