High school students from Kentucky's federal Promise Zone program take a break during their 2018 summer camp at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering on July 13, 2018.
High school students from Kentucky's federal Promise Zone program take a break during their 2018 summer camp at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering on July 13, 2018.

Their journey from southeastern Kentucky to UofL started with a promise — a promise that they would get the chance to do and see things they had never before experienced. It came true in a big way.

Eighteen-year-old incoming freshmen Ryan Shackleford and Katherine Grace Whitaker live close to the Daniel Boone National Forest, some 150 miles away from the University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus. Both will begin studies at UofL this fall, academic journeys inspired by a new type of high school summer camp at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering.

Ryan, a graduate of Corbin High School, and Katherine, who graduated from Whitley County High School, live in a high poverty area the federal government has declared a “Promise Zone.” The program is aimed at improving the overall quality of life and, in Kentucky, the targeted area covers 3,071 square miles in Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay and Knox counties and part of Whitley County. There are a total of 22 Promise Zone communities nationwide in a mix that includes urban, rural and tribal areas.

This summer marked the third year of the camp, which is designed to broaden interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

The first two years focused on renewable energy with lessons and labs from researchers at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research at Speed. This year, from July 9-13, a group of 23 Promise Zone students learned about 3D printing by designing and manufacturing small products at Speed’s Rapid Prototyping Center. They presented their products in a “Shark Tank”-like competition held on the final day of camp.

“It blew my mind what a 3D printer can do,” said Taylor Hall, 16, a Letcher County Central High School junior, whose team worked on a laser surgical cutting device that would replace the scalpel. “We had the best time ever. … I would love to come here.” 

Taylor and his teammate, 15-year-old Logan Thornton of Somerset High School, said they also enjoyed the extracurricular visits to Shakespeare in the Park and Louisville Mega Cavern, along with living in a college dormitory for a week. 

Logan Thornton, 15, left, of Somerset High School, shows one of the mock-ups of his team’s Laser-Lance, a pen-size device for surgeons that can cut and cauterize. Teammate Taylor Hall, 16, of Letcher County Central High School, looks on.

Ryan and Katherine were among the first group of Kentucky Promise Zone students who attended, also making visits to Louisville attractions while learning what UofL could offer them.

“Before attending the camp, I had not really put too much thought into where I would attend college, but the University of Louisville certainly wasn’t at the top of my list,” said Katherine, who was awarded a Grawemeyer Scholarship and a Vogt Scholarship and is considering majoring in psychology, biology or neuroscience. “I didn’t realize all the resources that were available at UofL, as there are very few people from my hometown who choose to attend there. After the camp, I became aware how much really was happening in Louisville, both at the university and in the surrounding city.”

Ryan Shackleford, left, and Katherine Whitaker both attended the first Promise Zone camp and decided to attend UofL as a result. (Photo courtesy Melissa Shackleford)

Ryan, who secured a spot in the Guaranteed Entrance to Medical School (GEMS) program, plans to major in chemical engineering. He is also in the Honors Program and won a Grawemeyer Scholarship. He said the camp gave him his first real experience “working with physics,” and his favorite subjects were solar power and ion lithium batteries, as well as learning how an electron microscope works.

“For the most part, the camp gave me a more in-depth look and hands-on experience with subjects I only knew a little about,” Ryan said. “I had never been on the campus before until this camp. This camp opened up UofL as an option for me. I was surprised by how much I liked both the campus and the city of Louisville. UofL was not intimidating, but friendly and welcoming.”

Both Ryan and Katherine expressed their gratitude to the camp organizers.

“There are many students in this part of the state that are very intelligent and have a lot of potential, but do not get the opportunities that students from larger areas may receive,” Ryan said. “This camp gave students the opportunity to visit a large university outside of our local area.”

Katherine agreed.

“I think this camp is helping to provide unique and meaningful experiences for students in southeastern Kentucky that they otherwise may not be able to have,” she said. 

Ed Tackett, in red, with members of the winning team at the Promise Zone 2018 competition. The team came up with the “Spinny Cup,” a device designed to keep coffee and soft-drink cups from spilling in automobiles. The other teams developed a laser surgical cutting device, augmented reality glasses and a hands-free toilet flusher. “I bought all the domain names for all these products,” joked Tackett, director of Additive Manufacturing at the Speed School’s Rapid Prototyping Center, who led the camp.