University summer camp builds science connections

Eric Johnson
August 05, 2015

university-summer-camp-bu Contributing Editor, UNC@Work On a humid July night, with the sun setting behind the trees on the Elizabeth City State campus, a crowd of parents and high school students gathered in front of Lane Hall. As the group looked on, a student volunteer dumped a whole pack of Mentos into a 3-liter bottle of Diet Coke, then skittered backwards as a geyser of soda shot more than eight feet into the air. "You are not allowed to do that at home," said one parent, turning to her son. "Even if it is science." Making math and science more entertaining is a key goal of Elizabeth City State's USMASH Summer Program, a two-week day camp for local high school students and teachers in training at ECSU. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the camp is meant to help prepare future teachers by offering hands-on classroom experience. About half-a-dozen Elizabeth City State undergraduates take part in running the camp, allowing them to hone their skills in lesson planning, classroom management, and basic math and science. "We need more math and science teachers, especially in this region," said Dr. Farrah Jackson Ward, chair of ECSU's Mathematics and Computer Science department. "A lot of these teaching students will have jobs in the area even before they graduate." Dr. Ward oversees the federal grant to help encourage ECSU's future teachers to specialize in math and science, where there is often a shortage of qualified instructors. "We're really trying to get students who maybe haven't thought about those subjects," Dr. Ward said. "The goal is to get them real classroom experience during the summer, and because they have this experience, they're apt to try more project-based learning in their own classrooms later on." The ECSU student-teachers spend weeks researching hands-on projects for the summer camp, creating detailed lesson plans to keep young minds focused on challenging subjects. This year, the high school students learned card games to study statistics and probability, built a racetrack to calculate average speeds, and used basic cooking ingredients to make silly putty. And, of course, they set off Coca-Cola geysers. The Mentos dumped into the Diet Coke create a rush of new carbon dioxide bubbles, pushing the soda up and out the neck of the bottle. It's a very simple, very memorable demonstration. "Every year, they challenge us to become more creative and come up with new activities for the kids," said Kenya Robinson, a 2014 ECSU graduate now teaching mathematics at Currituck High School. She participated in the USMASH program for several years as an undergraduate and returned this summer to mentor new teachers. "It's a lot of work, but seeing everything the kids get to do makes it all worth it." Campers not only conduct science experiments, but also research college majors and think about their long-term career goals. As part of their final presentations to parents, each student has to recap what they've learned and what they hope to do in the years ahead. Instilling the kind of ambition is a major goal of the camp. "When they come here, we really try to change their minds about math and science, about their ability to do it and be successful," said Robinson, the teacher from Currituck High. And if nothing else, it keeps students engaged through the long stretch of summer vacation. "This camp allowed me to not waste my summer," said Mykal Polite, a rising freshman at Northeastern High School. "To actually use my brain."