Penn State summer camps inspire the next generation of science thinkers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- If Michael Zeman had his druthers, Penn State would have its own science theme park.

“It could be located just past the botanical gardens on Park Avenue,” he said, smiling and pointing behind him. “We’d have a haunted forensic mansion, and you’d have to solve science puzzles to find your way out.”

Zeman, director of outreach and science engagement in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science, didn’t set out to be the Walt Disney of science. After earning his master’s degree in kinesiology from Penn State, Zeman acquired a teaching certificate and spent six years as a middle school health teacher, eventually becoming an assistant principal. He also coached boys’ and girls’ varsity volleyball and organized volleyball camps for his players.

So when a position at Penn State opened that needed someone with experience in both education administration and running camp programs, Zeman saw a perfect opportunity. That was six years ago, and the college’s youth programs have thrived ever since.

Now, the college’s Science-U summer camps are using technology to develop the next generation of science thinkers.

Science-U may not rival the crowds at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but each summer Zeman and his colleagues regularly instruct between 500 and 600 students, making this the college’s largest youth offering.

Depending on age and area of interest, campers engage in activities that teach them how to amplify targeted DNA strands with capillary electrophoresis software, use LEGO toys to learn the fundamentals of computer programming languages, and work with the latest solar cell technology to see how photons move through a solar field — all before some campers learn to drive a car.

“These camps are designed for students in second grade through high school,” explained Zeman. “We work to promote their career pathway development while fostering their curiosity.”

And curiosity, according to Zeman, is what drives science. The excitement behind a discovery can spark a child’s love for science, even if they don’t realize it.

“If you put kids in a room with a problem and you don’t tell them it’s science, solving that problem would feel very natural to them, “ said Zeman. “That’s what science camp is, really. Organized curiosity.”

Penn State students play an important role in that organization. The Science-U camps employ 40 students each summer to help campers connect the proverbial dots. Zeman and his staff regularly interview upward of 200 students for the camp positions.

“Their role is to serve as the conduit between the highest form of curiosity, like running a full-fledged research lab, down to the kid who just wants to figure out how the magic trick works,” says Zeman. “They are the guides who bring campers through their journey.”

Ashley Clauer is one of those guides. Clauer, an undergraduate student in Penn State’s College of Education, became involved in Science-U in 2012 after her first year at Penn State. She’s been hooked ever since.

Clauer, who is currently studying abroad in Montpellier, France, is excited to come back for Science-U this summer to work with campers again.

“I love seeing their eyes light up and their interest in science grow,” she explained.

Clauer credits technology with giving Science-U campers a way to explore science topics they’re interested in, even after they go home for the day.

“Many mornings started with my students telling me about the research they did at night based on what we did the day before in camp,” she said. “It makes them excited to come back each day and discover more.”

Conor Higgins agrees. Higgins, an undergraduate student in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science, started working at Science-U after his sophomore year. He credits the state-of-the-art technology labs the campers use with elevating their level of learning and enjoyment.

“These students are using equipment I didn’t get to use until I came to college, like gel electrophoresis and micropippets,” Higgins explained. “In the energy camp they visit the nuclear reactor, power plant and green energy home on campus. It’s an amazing chance for these campers to be exposed to so many different things at such a young age.”

It’s not just the Science-U campers who are benefiting from technology. This year the Penn State student employees are receiving their training through an online active learning module with material adapted from a traditional binder stuffed with papers.

“We keep trying to advance our training process with technology every year,” said Zeman. “I’m looking forward to seeing what we’re able to do in the future.”

Perhaps a Penn State science theme park isn’t such a pipe dream after all.

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu.

Last Updated May 27, 2014