Learning STEM Fundamentals at Space Camp
By Jay Friess
Seven years ago, Dr. Laura M. Carpenter, director of Summer Space Camp Programs for St. Mary’s County Public Schools, was holding her breath, hoping for 20 kids to attend her annual science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) camp.
This year, she was running to keep up with the more than 300 kids that signed on to Space Camp for the last three weeks.
“The wonderful problem to have is high enrollment,” Dr. Carpenter said Thursday afternoon as the camp wound down for the year.
The program has undergone a radical change in the last few years with the support of The Patuxent Partnership. Four years ago, the camp changed its name to “Space Camp” and enjoyed a $15,000 infusion from the Partnership. The Partnership gave another $30,000 to the program two years ago.
Last year, the Boeing Company paid to send three St. Mary’s County teachers down to Huntsville, Alabama to train at the original Space Camp. They returned with new ideas and tons of project materials. They then rewrote the local camp’s curriculum, tailoring it to specific grade levels and integrating lessons on teamwork, composition, presentation, physics, mathematics, biology, aeronautics, rocketry and robotics.
Ms. Jackie DePiazza came back from the trip particularly fired up. “I asked for a blowtorch without any preface,” Ms. DePiazza said, laughing when she recalled the look on Dr. Carpenter’s face. She then had to quickly explain that it was for a project in which the students construct their own blast shields out of wire mesh and foil.
This year, second graders put together a presentation to sell a fictional new planet to space tourists; third graders invented new toys to play with in microgravity, fourth graders built gliders to learn the forces of flight; fifth graders learned Newton’s three laws of physics and built model rockets; and sixth graders extracted DNA from an apple and faced the crucible of Ms. DePiazza’s blowtorch. Students in grades seven through nine worked more complex problems in rocketry and robotics.
Dr. Carpenter and her teachers received a lot of help from local businesses and volunteers. The camp acquired golf balls from St. Mary’s Golf Center, corks from the Leonardtown Winery, straws from Burger King and building supplies from Quality Built Homes and St. Mary’s Builders. Cadets from the Civil Air Patrol and Chopticon High School ROTC joined college students in helping the teachers organize and lead activities.
Ms. Taylor Nelson, who is now studying to become a pediatric oncologist, attended the original STEM camp in the seventh grade and has been helping to teach Space Camp for the last three years. “You don’t quite realize what you are getting into,” Ms. Nelson said, explaining that even though she is a medical student, she feels compelled to help younger students grasp STEM concepts.
“I think it’s a program that speaks for itself,” Dr. Carpenter said. “What our community is saying is that we want education that goes beyond the 180 days of school.”