The award-winning program has inspired hundreds of thousands of youths and kids to explore the possibilities of STEM

By Christine Scholman

A dream and a team of four engineering students.

That’s what it took to start Virtual Ventures, the award-winning not-for-profit organization run under Carleton University’s Faculty of Engineering and Design. Virtual Ventures is also a network member of Actua. This year, we’re celebrating the organization’s 30th anniversary, and are reflecting on the past three decades of accomplishments.  

Go back in time and explore each decades’ milestones and memories—including pivotal events and highlights from staff, campers and alumni: 

Ready, Set… Launch! Humble Beginnings:

Virtual Ventures was tremendously influential in Charlie Younghusband’s life, one of the non-profit’s co-founders, who had suggested the name ‘Virtual Ventures’ back in 1994. 

“[The program] is a wonderful opportunity [for youth and kids] to explore STEM outside of the fixed environment and dynamics they may experience at school,” he said. “It was very meaningful for my kids to attend the camp multiple times many years later and to see evolution of the camp.” 

In the summer of 1994, Virtual Ventures welcomed over 150 youth to its first camp—a successful start. To keep the momentum going, Younghusband wanted to bring in a well-known speaker to drum up excitement for next year’s programming.  

To his surprise, Microsoft’s CEO, Bill Gates, happily accepted the speaker invitation. 

Virtual Ventures presenting a t-shirt to Bill Gates in 1995.

Charlie Younghusband, one of Virtual Ventures’ co-founders, presenting a Virtual Ventures t-shirt to Bill Gates in 1995. Photo credit: Younghusband.

“Attracting Bill Gates, by far the best-known leader in technology at the time, for a visit and speech at the camp was huge and put Virtual Ventures on the map permanently,” said Younghusband. “The camp exceeded attendance expectations, and unfortunately, we could only find a small size left to give him!” 

Over the next 30 years, every Virtual Ventures volunteer, staff and instructor passed the torch to the next generation of program leaders. The momentum kept growing, as each new leader adopts the heart and mission of the original team. 

Building on Exponential Impact and Growth

Virtual Ventures has not only dared, but succeeded, in instilling a joy for lifelong learning and STEM in youth across Canada and multiple generations, winning the non-profit countless awards and media attention. 

In its first decade of operation (1994-2004), summer camps reached approximately 4,000 youth. These numbers quickly quadrupled in the next ten years in 2004-2014, to 17,000. In 2014-2024, the growth was exponential yet again, and the number of youth reached through STEM-related programming nearly quadrupled to 63,000. 

What started as a singular camp program quickly split off into a junior and senior program in 1996 to include ages 6 to 9, which saw camp registration numbers quadruple. 

Two years later, grade-level specific programs were introduced: Explorers, Nybbles, Internauts and Innovators—most of which are still running to this day. 

“We had an agreement with science stores to get a weekly supply of liquid nitrogen for science demos,” said Patrick Gavigan, who went from camper in 1998 to staff in 2001-2003 for the Nybbles and Terrabytes camps. “We used it primarily to make ice cream and flash-freeze fruit and balloons, but we also once did pop bottle egg rockets. The idea was to protect the egg on top of the rocket.” 

“We learned the hard way to be careful where we aimed the rockets…after we accidentally ended up egging the Mackenzie Building. Oops!” 

Engineer Jr Campers 2019 - Pop Bottle Rockets

Campers at Engineering Junior Camp in 2019 designed aerodynamic fins and nose cones on their their pop bottle rockets, which are then tested and launched into the air. The rocket launch test is arguable the most memorable part of the experience.

The 2000s were marked by the creation of additional specialty and theme-based summer camps, such as “GO” (Girls Outreach), Game Programming Camp, Lego Camp and Engineering Camp. 

“One of my fondest memories of Virtual Ventures was when I was a Girls Camp Instructor,” said Kelsey Doerksen, Virtual Ventures’ first year-round student hire in 2015. “It was genuinely such a joy to come to work and teach the most energetic and passionate group of girls about science.” 

“I learned so much from each camper, and my time [at Virtual Ventures] has definitely influenced my career—where I am now working at UNICEF to support digital education infrastructure.” 

Presently, Virtual Ventures offers a wide variety of summer camp options for grades K-8. From age-specific STEM camps to specialty and all-girls camps—there’s something for all youth to experience the joy, creativity and unique possibilities of hands-on engineering challenges, technology and coding design and science experiments. 

Reaching the Next Generation of Leaders

Virtual Ventures - Discovery Day

Campers creating DIY Lava lamps at STEM Discovery Day event in 2023.

With summer camp registrations and programming bursting at the seams, the Virtual Ventures team expanded programming to year-round events, clubs and leadership programs. 

In 2017, the team decided it was time to go where the kids are. They launched the award-winning Linked> program in collaboration with Shopify and BGC (Boys and Girls Club) Ottawa for underprivileged youth. 

They then ventured forward and successfully pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide nation-wide digital STEM education and online programming. 

In 2022, skyrocketing interest came from primary and secondary schools and teachers across the city interested in STEM workshops and classroom visits. School workshops are free, designed adjacent to the Ontario curriculum and focus on building digital skills, engineering challenges and being safe online. 

In 2023 alone, over 17,000 youth across Canada accessed Virtual Ventures’ STEM programming. A growing demographic of youth reached in the last decade is high-school aged youth, through professional development programs and classroom workshops. 

Workshops and programs for high school students provide STEM education, information around Carleton programs, career discovery and connect students with members from the Faculty of Engineering and Design’s Engagement team. 

Key Highlights From 2023: 

  • 16,138 of the youth were reached through free programming (which accounts for 93% of programming). 
  • STEM school workshops maxed out at 600 classes across Ottawa and Kingston. 
  • Over 53% of participants are gender minorities. 

The Next 10 Years? Trending Towards: “STEM’s Future is Bright!”

Even as programming continues to evolve and grow, Virtual Ventures’ DNA has remained the same. 

“We’re dreaming big for the next few years,” said Kyra Bloomfield, Virtual Ventures’ current Program Director. “We’ll be focusing on creating more tailored programs and working collaboratively with industry, government and community leaders in Ottawa to provide even greater support and opportunities for the youth we work with.” 

The focus on high school-aged youth paves the way for a well-rounded, holistic approach to lifelong learning and development. Virtual Ventures has become a development pipeline to help students transition into post-secondary education and a lifelong passion for STEM. 

Virtual Ventures - Leadership STEM

Two ‘Leadership in STEM’ club attendees from the 2023 event. The last day included a photoshoot and resume writing workshop.

In 2024, the Virtual Ventures team anticipates reaching upwards of 20,000 youth through existing initiatives and new programs. By equipping the next generation of leaders, youth learn valuable STEM knowledge and leadership skills that they can bring with them into any industry or field. 

Exciting developments are in the works, including building a network of teachers across the city dedicated to STEM education, the official launch of Black Youth in STEM programming, Indigenous Youth in STEM outreach and providing all-girls programs and workshops. 

And as for the quality of Virtual Ventures’ programming, this heartwarming fact speaks for itself: 

“A lot of our campers and attendees come back hoping to work with us in the summer or to complete their high school volunteer hours with us,” said Bloomfield. “We love to see the number of students interested in our jobs. It’s very common to receive at least 100 applications every time we post a job. We’re lucky that we get to hire incredible students and staff members.” 

So, what will the next decade bring?  

Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: the beating heart of an organization founded in 1994 will continue to inspire a legacy and passion in youth for STEM across this city, nation and beyond.

Join the 30th Anniversary Celebrations!

Thursday, March 28, 2024 in , , , ,
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