July 5, 2014

I love getting kids excited about science.  It doesn’t matter if they are 17 yr olds in my AP Physics class or 8 yr olds in my science camp, the rewards are immediate.  And it’s not just about entertainment either.  Science can stimulate real learning when presented in the right way.

One of the things I love about running a science camp is that kids not only get to see cool demos but they get to do the work of scientists.  They get to test things and try to find patterns in their results.  They get to make decisions about what it all means or if it means anything. They also get to do the work of engineers.  They build projects and then try to optimize them for a competition or just for fun.  For example this year one of the big attractions was the solar death ray.  It sounds menacing but it was really just a concave mirror aimed at paper-plate targets with various objects close-pinned to the plates to be melted.

science camp: a crayon is melted with a mirror


Building things is Fun

I’ve got to be honest here and tell you that a big part of what they love is making stuff.  They enjoy building the projects.  I’ve had campers before tell me that their favorite part of science camp was getting to use the drill.  It doesn’t hurt that almost all of our projects involve a competition of some sort either.   And though the solar death rays didn’t take too much effort they loved it.  Really LOVED it.  Maybe I should say that they really loved melting things with them.

Becasue I have experienced that kids at all levels enjoy making things that involve science, I am pleased that the next generation science standards include engineering design (for more on that read here) as a part of  their recommendations.  Building things is an important piece in making science fun. And I’ve got to admit that’s one of things I love about it too.

science camp: melting an army guy with a mirror

  There is something gratifying about melting a crayon or an army guy or even setting a cotton ball smoldering with only the power of the sun.  But the kids also learn things.  Some of it is things I’ve directly taught or planned but much of it isn’t.  For example, a student in our first session of science camp this year had the idea of trying to pop a balloon with the death rays.  It turned out to be one of the greatest targets of the day!  We discovered that the color of the balloon affected how long it took to pop.  I definitely hadn’t planned that one (although I wish I would have…it was a great idea!)

Authentic Learning

I taught a course at our school called Science Research and Design for two years.  The course was designed not to teach kids a set curriculum, but to help them gain some experience with the process of science.   It was a very interesting dynamic, because I gave virtually zero lectures.  My main job was to facilitate their work:  choosing a project, designing it, researching their background data (this was actually the toughest part for most of them), collecting data, analyzing the data and determining what it meant (for those interested we used this handbook as a resource). The class basically gave kids control over what they wanted to learn about and then gave them time to do it.  You are probably thinking that if kids are let loose with a project to do that they’ll goof off a lot . Yes, the kids did waste some (read: more than I wanted) of their time.   Yes, they sometimes went down the easy path or down dead end paths.  Yes, my class was often messy and somewhat chaotic (and I had very little control over what they learned each day).  But, at the end of the each semester those students had to stand up in front of a panel of science teachers and present their findings and defend their results.  And even though the groups never quite got as far along with their projects as I hoped and never quite went as deep with their projects as they could have, I could see real learning.  The science teachers in our department could see real learning.   Not the pseudo-learning game that we often play in schools involving memorizing vocabulary and such.    But it was authentic learning that the students figured out mostly on their own.  And the cool part was that is wasn’t always the same for each kid.  They learned different things.  But they were in control of their learning and most of them really liked that.

Real Science is Messy

My class also learned how messy real science can be.  But it’s in learning how to deal with the messiness and find patterns and relationships that makes it interesting.  It’s in learning to analyze and communicate what you have found (and how certain you are of your findings) that gives those skills of science an important value in the everyday world.  Who doesn’t want their kid to be able to analyze evidence and solve real life problems that are often messy?  Who doesn’t want their kid to be able to articulate an argument based on evidence?  We all do, don’t we?

In a small way that is what kids do at science camp.  For example, this year we melted Hersey kisses by conduction, convection, and radiation (it involved candles, hair driers, and heat lamps).  One of the parts I love about the experiment is that students have to decide in their individual groups when the chocolate is melted.  What qualifies as being melted–when it starts to get shiny?  When it is soft to a toothpick probing it?  When it is a brown puddle?  As students are forced to make these simple but important decisions not only do they develop ownership over their work, but they step into the messiness that is real science.

I don’t expect campers to walk away with a great understanding of the process of science in 4 days of science camp.  But I do think they get a sense that science is a way of thinking and is often messy, but also enjoyable.  And hopefully they see that that doing science is really just discovering the story the best fits the evidence that is available.

Kids can do real science

This was our 6th year of running a science camp for kids ages 8-12.  We typically get a little over 100 kids through our doors each summer.   It is not hard to see that kids love seeing cool science.  But I have also observed that they want more than to just watch cool science, they want to DO cool science.  And the best part is they can. They just need it to be framed in a way that makes sense to them.

science camp 2010 2

I am very pleased to now be able to offer a science camp experience to many more kids! I have put together video from my camp in summer 2013, Force and Motion, and it is now available to be purchased for your kids.  It includes demos , experiments for your kids to do at home, and of course, projects for them to build.  For the next two weeks you can purchase just one day of the camp for $15 or the full 4 day camp experience for $50.  Make it a whole family event if you want.  The purchase comes with a list of supplies you will need to do the experiments and the projects.  They are mostly household items, but you’ll probably need to pick up a few things. You can find the purchase options here.

If a camp experience isn’t in the budget this summer, then use the free monthly science episodes on this site as your science enrichment.  Whatever your situation this summer, let’s get your kids Stoked About Science!!!