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NASA STEM Camp gives kids 21st century learning
Zoe Cox (left) and Janelle Walker prepare to launch their Alka-Seltzer-powered rockets during the recent NASA STEM Camp at Patrick Henry Elementary School. They were investigating how pressure needs to build up when rockets launch into space so they can break Earth’s gravity. (Contributed photos by Kim Buck)
Campers in a new, intensive science-themed summer camp in the Martinsville schools spent two weeks doing everything from launching rockets to making volcanoes erupt to constructing a “robotic” hand.
Federal Title I funds and NASA curriculum materials were used to offer a two-week NASA STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Camp to students in third- through fifth-grades for the first time this June. About 70 students attended sites at Albert Harris and Patrick Henry elementary schools.
“The kids have been so enthused about learning,” said Anne Stultz, the division’s coordinator of 21st Century programs. “It has taught them critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills and about the engineering process. NASA STEM camp gives them the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned during the school year to real-life situations.”
“They’ve been having a blast, and it’s all 21st century learning. They’re learning to function as part of a team,” said teacher Laurie Witt, the site coordinator for the Albert Harris camp. The camp was “a great opportunity to tackle some in-depth projects we didn’t have time for during the school year.”
These projects included making a “robotic hand,” which students cut out of cardboard and used string to make moveable finger joints. They used pizza boxes and foil to make solar ovens, and then set them in the sun to melt marshmallows and chocolate for s’mores. Even the art projects were educational, such as making glittery mobiles of the different shapes of galaxies.
“They love the hands-on activities,” said teacher Donna White, who coordinated the Patrick Henry site.
Campers simulated an oil spill by mixing Italian dressing with water and then layered substances like aquarium rocks, marbles, gravel, coffee filters and sand in different combinations to filter it. The object was to find out which arrangement did the best job cleaning the water.
“The kids were really intrigued with that. They came to the conclusion that you put the bigger stuff on top,” White said. “They had a lot of those ‘ah-ha’ moments.”
In another experiment, students had to figure out “whether yeast is a live organism or not,” White said. “They first had to observe it dry and then observe it after they added water to it. They concluded that it was a live organism, because it wouldn’t have had a reaction to water if it was already dead.”
The camp was held Mondays through Thursdays. “I wish it was on Fridays, too,” said Desiree Hairston, a camper at Albert Harris. “I want to do it again.”
In one of the experiments, students compared black and white paper to see which one absorbs more heat. “The color black traps more heat. So in the winter, you might want to wear black,” Desiree said she learned.
Because of the NASA theme, many of the activities had to do with space. Students launched several rockets outside as they investigated how pressure needs to build up for rockets to break Earth’s gravity.
“The rocket went 27 feet. It was awesome!” said Kellene Wotring, a camper at Patrick Henry Elementary.
Students at both schools created a DNA model out of clay balls connected by toothpicks in a ladder formation and learned how damage to the DNA can cause disease.
“DNA is like your genes. It comes from your family. Everyone’s is different,” said Anijah Hairston, a camper at Albert Harris Elementary School.
A popular activity was demonstrating how layers of lava harden to create mountains and rock formations. Teams of students created volcanoes out of clay and used baking soda and vinegar colored with food coloring to show the effects of multiple eruptions. They used different colors of clay to map the lava flow.
“You had to layer the lava — that tells you how old it is,” said Patrick Henry camper Jacklyn Bendall, who worked with Marjorie Hankins on a volcano model.
In an engineering challenge, teams of students competed to build the tallest freestanding tower using only the objects given to them. “You have to have 20 pieces of thick spaghetti, 100 centimeters of tape, and you have to put a marshmallow on top,” explained Albert Harris camper Stacey Woods.
Even though it looks light, “It’s harder with the marshmallow,” said Elijah Hairston.
Campers also did a “liquid rainbow” experiment, testing the density of different liquids colored with food coloring.
“I think the blue is going to be the most dense, because it had the most mass,” said Orion Champlin, a camper at Albert Harris Elementary.
With every experiment, students kept scientific journals documenting “what they think is going to happen and what could be done differently,” Witt said.
On the final day of camp, parents were invited to come see the projects. Albert Harris teacher Renita Street encouraged her campers to stand up and tell the families what they had enjoyed about camp.
“The best thing about camp was I got to make new friends and have fun and learn,” said student Olivia Branch.
(Story by Kim Buck, community outreach and grants coordinator for the Martinsville Public Schools)