A Whale of a Tale
The United States has become a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its citizens, including its scientists, its engineers, and its trendsetters. But according to the United States Department of Education, that position is being threatened in some ways because comparatively few Americans are choosing fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, for their degree pursuits. STEM is defined as an education that encompasses the processes of critical thinking, analysis and collaboration in which students integrate the processes and concepts in real world contexts of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and foster the development of STEM skills and competencies for college, career and life.
It is reported by the department that only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. Even among those who do go on to pursue a college major in the STEM fields, only about half choose to work in a related career. The United States is falling way behind. Internationally, the U.S. is ranked 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among all industrialized nations. In the competitive global economy, this situation is unacceptable and will lead to the continuing decline of American exceptionalism.
Seeing the need to better prepare their students for real world needs, the Rugby faculty and administration decided that sitting idly by was not an option they were willing to accept. Mike McNeff, Ed,D, Rugby Public Schools superintendent, said, “We wanted to expose students earlier to STEM activities and we hope that will peak their interest into possibly pursuing a career into a STEM field.” He continued, “Above all we wanted them to experience that science and other related areas are fun.” With everyone on board they initiated the first STEM camp held in Rugby.
This initiative was led by Mellissa Goddard – 7th & 8th grade science teacher – and assisted by Cheryl Jacobs – part-time librarian at Ely Elementary. In addition, they had two people from North Central Education Cooperative (NCEC) help out: Cynthia Jelleberg and Mandy McNeff. There were also junior high student helpers: Trenton Sanford, Kate Heidlebaugh and Nathaniel Goddard. Finally, with the need for community involvement and with Sean Robbins’s understanding the need to introduce students to STEM, he lent his services to this noble cause.
According to Goddard, “There is not a set curriculum for this program. Different schools have summer science or STEM camps, and the wonderful thing is that each school can tailor the program to fit the needs of the students.” She continued, ” I liked the flexibility that I could design my own curriculum for the summer camp. There are several schools in the USA that put their summer science camp curriculum online, so we can share awesome ideas and pictures.” She concluded, “This is not a national program. School funding and willingness of staff to put together such camps is what determines if there will be a camp at a particular school.”
The STEM camp participation was not available to all grades, but rather a select few. According to Goddard, “We decided to limit the camp to third through fifth graders because that is generally the crucial time when students either appreciate science or dislike it.”
Benefits to the students attending the camp, as shared to us by Goddard, were student engagement, curiosity and collaboration. It is the belief of Goddard, and teachers across the U.S., that future benefits to students that attend the camp now are that they look forward to future science lessons in class, and they are more apt to pursue self-motivated science projects once they return home.
The learning didn’t stop with the campgoers. There were also benefits for the student helpers, because they gained appreciation for the hard work that goes into science preparation. This gave them a sampling of what it is like being a teacher, when you see a student not just learning but enjoying learning.
When information about the one-week, all day, STEM camp became known, all 30 seats that were available filled up quickly resulting in a long waiting list of eager students to participate.
The camp consisted of five parts for the five days of the camp. Each day had a specific theme and a snack for students to eat that went with the theme. Students were able to participate in snack-building each day in addition to working on the STEM activities. Students were encouraged to try to make the snacks at home and incorporate the healthy snack items offered at the camp.
To make each day more interesting and information-packed, they worked on a specific area each day. On two separate days students worked with the forever popular Legos. On one day the curriculum included Lego pneumatics kits, a K’NEX roller coaster, a Little Bits kit, as well as a tote full of Legos. Most students had never seen so many Legos in one box before! The Lego pneumatics kits taught the young students how something as light as air could lift Legos through the use of pressure. Not only were the activities created to be educational they were also designed to encourage cooperation and teamwork. On the next Lego day the focus was on building a city from the tote of Legos, and using the Lego renewable energy kits to discover ways that wind and the sun can create power. Students built wind turbines, solar cars, solar-electric motors, wind-electric motors and many other creations following directions provided in the kits.
On another day the theme was ocean life. During the first half of the morning, students were rotating through stations of activities, which included paper plate whale and jellyfish crafts, making clay sea turtles. All the while learning facts about sea life and learning about oil spills in the oceans. One of the projects the children enjoyed was making an ocean collage. This enticed the children to discover more about the kinds of whales and where in the world’s oceans they live. The snack was a tasty, beautifully hand-crafted whale watermelon.
One of the most fascinating events on the agenda was when students were allowed to enter the belly of a whale – a life-sized inflatable replica that all the kids seemed to enjoy. According to Goddard, “Students were noisily excited while inside the whale and could hardly contain their joy to sit quietly to listen to an ocean story from inside the belly of the beast.”
On the next to last day of camp they made it a real brain workout. Students rotated through stations of activities or science labs and learned about how to care for plants, made fake snot, observed live and preserved specimens, and extracted strawberry DNA. There were several different specimens for students to observe and learn more about, including an otter pelt, a dried starfish, an empty turtle shell, live snails and guppies, and over 30 preserved specimens. Strawberry DNA extraction was the best smelling station. Some students wanted to try it again at home because the ingredients are readily available. Goddard shared, “They were amazed that they could see something so small so well without a microscope!”
The last day of the camp took them out of this world, figuratively of course. Students went to the library to utilize the computers so they could access “other worlds” on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) websites.
At the end of the program, students were rewarded with a camp T-shirt and a participation medal. Several students said they want to come back again next year! All said they felt better prepared for the coming school year. By all concerned from the eager students, a cutting edge administration, the five adults and three middle school students who worked tirelessly to keep the STEM campers motivated this camp, hopefully the first of many more to come was a whale of success.
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