ATWATER -- Get a student interested in science at an early age and it could spark a lifetime involvement with scientific pursuits.
That's one of the missions for the Challenger Learning Center's four-week series of summer camps which conclude at the end of this month. Mix in youngsters' fascination with space exploration, and the quest for knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is likely to continue for years to come.
A total of 120 students from 6- to 13-years-old took part in five-day summer camps at Challenger at the Castle Commerce Center.
Students came from Merced, Madera, Stanislaus and Fresno counties, according to Amanda Hartman, operations administrator for the Castle Science and Technology Center and Challenger Learning Center.
"Kids seem to enjoy it," Hartman said. "They don't realize they are capable of completing science projects.
In June and July, campers will experience an exciting week of hands-on science experiences ranging from the concepts of buoyancy and sound waves to chemistry, toy-making and the basics of rocketry and robotics."
Anelle Kelly of Atwater taught fourth- through eighth-graders this summer. Her students devised chemical rockets, solar systems, solar ovens and models of the space shuttle. During the school year Kelly teaches special education for fourth- and fifth-graders at Farmdale Elementary School in Merced.
"It's a great program," Kelly said. "I wish more kids could take advantage of it. It really sparks their interest."
Lee Andersen, former Merced County superintendent of schools and vice president of the Challenger foundation board, cites statistics showing the work force for high-tech companies is lacking in the United States. There aren't enough people graduating with degrees in electrical engineering and other areas of science and technology.
Kelly and Andersen said science isn't always a priority during the regular school year and the curriculum isn't as hands-on as the Challenger programs.
"It starts in elementary school with kids who get inspired to work in math and science," Andersen said. "When kids get excited about robotics and the use of computers, it hits the spark."
Connie Hunter, who taught kindergarteners through third-graders this summer at Challenger, said her component introduces the terminology and vocabulary of science experimentation to youngsters. They learn scientific investigation techniques through the Cadet Science Program.
"Oh yeah, they want more," Hunter said. "You have to keep 10 steps ahead of them. They are enthralled by it. The week goes by so fast."
Hunter said students grasp the scientific concepts very quickly. Earlier this week, the students performed 12 experiments in class, including cooking in a solar oven and producing chemical reactions in a chemistry lab.
Kelly said that as a result of the summer classes, many children want to go into the engineering field.
The combined efforts of the United States, China and other countries has revived interest in space exploration.
Hartman said students explored the Space Museum and saw astronomy and space shows in the Digital Planetarium Dome and Science on a globe. At the end of each week students took part in a simulated space mission at the center.
Tuition for the program was $200 a week. Thirty foster students from Merced County were able to participate in camp through a United Way grant. Summer camp students received free lunches daily from the Merced Union High School District, Hartman said.
The Challenger Learning Center opened in June 1996 at Castle, 10 years after the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight. It continues operating today to provide young people with hands-on experience in science, space and related fields.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.