Seventh-grader Kiersten Ballou immersed herself in a virtual classroom at UCF, trying to manage a rowdy class of avatars.

She used headgear to communicate with the virtual students on a screen, and they responded in real time, turning to look at her and making “faces.”

The Villages Charter School student couldn’t believe how high tech the TeachMe lab at the University of Central Florida is, but she knows that technology is key to her future education.

Kiersten plans to become a doctor and believes that technology will allow her to learn surgical skills in real time before operating on a live person. She has a clear vision of her future and how much better it will be if she continues to study math and science.

It’s the kind of vision that educators and industry leaders hope more students will realize.

That’s why UCF recently partnered with Workforce Central Florida, Lockheed Martin, Electronic Arts (EA) and NASA to launch STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camps this summer.

The camps are designed to show the tweens that the “hard stuff” can be fun and relevant to their lives today and tomorrow, said Jacqueline Rodriguez, one of two UCF graduate students in the College of Education leading the camps.

The United States is experiencing a decline in highly qualified people with backgrounds that are desperately needed if the nation is to remain competitive in the international arena. The challenge, experts say, is that kids don’t think these “hard subjects” are cool or relevant to their daily routine.

“If you go into any field that requires thinking, you are labeled as a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek,’” Kiersten said. “I come from a family of nerds, so I don’t care if they call me that. Nerd is good.”

The students who completed the camp spent one day at UCF working on fun hands-on activities, such as virtual teaching and building skyscrapers and buildings. On the second day, students visited Lockheed Martin, NASA or EA to give them a chance to meet people who are making a living in fun STEM careers, from designing rocket ships to creating video games.

This week, the last group of students came through the camp and met with engineers and game designers at EA Tiburon. Altogether, about 80 students benefited from the free camp. Workforce Central Florida funded the program, and corporate partners paid the expenses for children to attend.

“It takes the best and the brightest minds to develop top-selling game titles like Madden NFL Football here at EA Tiburon,” said Daryl Holt, chief operating officer of EA Tiburon. “We recognize that it’s very important for our continued success to help cultivate and grow those skills in students right here at home.”

Growing the skills means helping kids realize that the subjects in school are very relevant to their lives.

Brandon Basli, a student from Center Academy in Ormond Beach, said he has struggled in school because the courses were boring and didn’t apply to his life. He knows plenty of kids who have dropped out for that reason.

“The schools don’t make math and science relevant, but I do like technology,” the eighth-grader said. “I can tell you everything about the latest phone and how it works. I’d love to do some animation maybe, but they don’t have a class for that.”

He liked the camp because he said he now sees how learning math can help him become a game designer in the future.

Ultimately, getting kids interested in STEM careers isn’t just about keeping kids in school. It impacts all of us.

“It is very important that students learn about science, technology, engineering and math,” Kiersten said. “When we grow up, we will be the next generation to deal with the problems. We need to have the smarts to problem solve.”