Kids let their imaginations run wild at science camps

Super Summer is a challenging summer program for students who have been designated or identified as "gifted students" and are entering the first grade through the eighth grade in the 2013-2014 school year. (Courtesy photo)

Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

Mary Albrecht remembers struggling with science before her parents heard about the Super Summer Science Camp three years ago.

Held at Santa Fe College's Watson Center in Keystone Heights, the camp is a hands-on science program for children ages 6 to 12. Mary learned about the Earth's layers and decomposition using gummy worms and crushed Oreos, and she studied the placement of the sun, moon and stars by constructing a sundial.

"I learned so much about science, including how to enjoy it," she said.

Today's generation of students lives in a world of technology never before experienced: laptops, cellphones, electronic notebooks and other mobile devices. Which is why science, technology, engineering and mathematics are increasingly important topics for today's students. Frequently referred to as STEM for short, these subjects are at the forefront of a national debate, prompting parents to search for ways to expose their children to more science- and math-based activities.

The 10 weeks of downtime during the summer provides the perfect opportunity for students to gain knowledge in these areas through local camps.

"Kids have to have exposure to science beginning in kindergarten to prepare them for not only high school but for the world," said Jackie Johnson, public information officer for Alachua County Schools. "The new high school standards that the state of Florida has been phasing in for the past couple years are very much focused on STEM."

While public school educators work hard to incorporate STEM into the classroom, Melanie Roberti, an instructor at Santa Fe College and director of the college's Super Summer Science Camp, said teachers often lack the time and resources to teach science in a way that ignites a child's imagination.

"It's all about exposure," said Roberti, adding that it's important for young children to learn about the many areas of science, including geology, astronomy and physics, so they can see how science applies to their lives.. "If you spark their interest young, you've got them."

Super Summer Science Camp exposes students to the exciting world of STEM-based ideas. During their week of camp, students even have the opportunity to work in a college laboratory.

"Camp definitely helped me understand certain subjects," said Mary, who is now in seventh grade at Keystone Heights Junior-Senior High School. She returned to the Super Summer Science Camp for two more summers.

"Camps that focus on STEM help build self-confidence and allow students to develop their own solutions," said Kelly Hage, a local director of the nationwide Camp Invention, held at Hidden Oak Elementary and Chiles Elementary. "STEM allows kids to see there is not just one answer or one way to get an answer. No one is telling students, ‘No, you can't do that.' "

Hage, who teaches second grade at Wiles Elementary, said campers at Camp Invention might think they are doing nothing more than building a wall to protect their castle from an egg-throwing catapult, but they are actually learning about simple machines and structural design.

"STEM camps incorporate a lot of problem-solving, group work and hands-on creativity to prepare students for what's coming up in the world," said Danute Krebs, Camp Invention's regional consultant for Florida. "It's all about academics disguised as fun."

Ann Almond couldn't agree more. The Gainesville resident said she enrolled her eldest son, now a high school freshman, in Camp Invention in 2005. After hearing about the fun he had, her younger son, Nathan, begged to attend camp and was enrolled the following year. Now a fifth-grade student, Nathan will attend his fourth and last Camp Invention in just a couple months.

"You get to take apart things and use teamwork to build something new," said Nathan, who still remembers the time he took apart a computer and built a working fan during his first summer at camp. "At school you have to sit and learn, but at camp you get to do hands-on activities."

Knowing their children are learning and playing simultaneously is a sigh of relief for parents of science campers.

"They are learning, but it's such a fun learning, they don't realize it," Almond said.

Whether they have been exposed to a certain topic or not, campers find common ground as they try to solve problems as a team, Hage said. It's not unusual for children attending science camp to face challenges they've never met before, like building a Viking ship that stays afloat despite heavy loads.

Students at Super Summer Science Camp participate in similar activities, including building roller coasters and learning about super absorbent polymers by studying a baby diaper, said Roberti, adding that "students like learning big words."

"A child may have never heard of a black hole, but as soon as they do, they might be fascinated," she said, adding that STEM is not about drudgery but rather about fun and excitement.

While Roberti said interest has definitely increased in Super Science Camp over the past few years, there is limited space for participants.

"Today we are such a technological society, so students need to be able to master the STEM concepts to be competitive, she said. "STEM camps can be real eye openers."

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