Summer Transportation Camp at Portland State University: One Student's Route To Engineering

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Left: Isa Swain with a robot she helped create as part of a robotics team in high school. Right: A Lego intersection, Isa's final project from the 2020 transportation camp.

Since 2016, the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University has hosted a free transportation summer camp for high school students. Isa Swain, an incoming sophomore in civil engineering at Portland State University, exemplifies why TREC engages in K-12 education: students' interest in transportation doesn't have to wait until the university. After attending the summer camp in 2020, Swain came to PSU to study civil engineering last year and is now on track to become a transportation professional. She also served as a camp counselor for this year's cohort of students. We interviewed Isa to get her perspective on the PSU summer camp and what it offers to students.


The 2023 transportation summer camp was held last month, with activities including bike tours, a jet boat tour, an exploration of the inside of a couple of Portland's bridges, a bridge-building contest, and of course the presentation of students' final projects to friends and family. Guest instructors shared their expertise and career insights with students, coming from local organizations including PSU, the City of Portland, The Street Trust, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Cycle Oregon, and Alta Planning + Design. 

Left: Multnomah County Bridge Tour. Second from left: Winning team of the bridge-building competition. Second from right: Willamette Jet Boat Tour. Right: Bicycle Tour. See more photos from this year's camp.

Free for students to attend, the camp is supported through the Federal Highway Administration's National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) program as well as funding from the Oregon Department of Transportation. One goal of the program is to attract more students into the transportation industry, particularly those from groups traditionally underrepresented in the transportation workforce, including women and students of color.

As a high school junior, Isa Swain attended the virtual version of the camp in 2020. This year, she was one of several counselors for the traditional in-person version.


Did being a part of the summer transportation camp impact your decision on what to study? 

Yes! I'm pretty set on a transportation career trajectory. And what's interesting is before I attended the camp, I wasn't very interested in transportation. I like biking and walking, but it wasn't in the front of my mind. And when I went, it opened my eyes to a new way to see the world. I feel like that was the moment, along with other things; I was reading books and watching Youtube videos and stuff. And I think all of that combined just made it so that whenever I was outside, I was thinking about transportation. 

What value did you get from participating in the camp as a student?

My participation in the camp when I was a high school student opened up my eyes to social justice and equity issues within transportation systems in my own neighborhood. I had never really thought about how social justice issues could show up in infrastructure until the camp. I remember we talked about the I-5 corridor, and how it was built through Black neighborhoods, and learned about redlining and all that stuff. And then, going into my community I started noticing how areas with more residents that were Black and brown, had worse sidewalks or things like that. I remember realizing that, where I live, there's only one grocery store nearby, and it can only easily be accessed by car. And so I see a lot of people who are walking or biking on the poorly maintained sidewalks nearby, and it's not ideal for them. I've just started noticing it more and more. Once you learn about it, it's a very tangible thing.

What value did you get from participating in the camp as a counselor?

As a counselor, it made me realize how many kids who are younger than me are interested in transportation. Because when I went into the camp, I wasn't interested in transportation, and then the camp made me interested in transportation. So, seeing how many campers going into it are already interested in transportation kind of gives me hope for the future of walkability and bikeability. So that was really cool for me to see. I've always really liked the creativity of middle schoolers and high schoolers and their energy. I had been a camp counselor for multiple summers in high school, supervising middle school students in a robotics camp and an environmental camp. I feel like just being around them, their enthusiasm rubs off on me a little bit, and inspires me to follow my passions with that same energy.

Having participated in both versions, what would you say are the tradeoffs between in-person and virtual summer camp?

The biggest difference is how much the campers got to interact with each other. Like, I remember the online version. It was mostly attending speaker events and breakout rooms and stuff. Even though we did have those breakout rooms, I don't really remember the people that I talked with, except for some counselors. So there definitely wasn't as much opportunity for connections between campers. In the in-person one, it felt like everybody became best friends. Or at least everybody found somebody to connect with and become friends with, and a lot of them shared social media with each other afterwards, and said that they want to keep in touch. So that's what I thought was the biggest difference.

I will say there were some pros to the virtual version. It was a little sad that I didn't get to go to Portland and experience Portland's transportation systems. But for me having it online gave me the opportunity to go into my own neighborhood. And that was what was really impactful for me. It was super well planned out, and they had a lot of speakers—maybe more speakers than we could have in an in-person session. And being able to get out into my own neighborhood, and see how these transportation systems impact where I live, allowed me to start seeing transportation issues wherever I'm walking or biking.

What do you hope to accomplish in your future career?

I just want to see the communities that I live in become more accessible for pedestrians, for people who use different micromobility options, for people who use public transportation. I want to help reduce reliance on cars, because I think it's harmful in so many different ways.

Connect with Isa on LinkedIn.

Check out a Flickr album of photos from the 2023 camp, or see photo collections from past years. Learn more about the Summer Transportation Camp and the high school curriculum we have developed through it, and check out our other K-12 education programs here.

Portland State University's Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) is home to the U.S. DOT funded National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC), the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation (IBPI), PORTAL, BikePed Portal and other transportation grants and programs. We produce impactful research and tools for transportation decision makers, expand the diversity and capacity of the workforce, and engage students and professionals through education and participation in research.

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