Seventy Atwater students are spending their spring break learning more about science and using instructional methods that are part of the future.
STEM Camp started Monday and winds up Friday at Mitchell Senior Elementary School in Atwater. Students have been exploring crime scene investigation, Mars, astronomy, volcanoes and solar power. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.
The first-ever camp was organized by Matt Edwards, an Atwater teacher on special assignment who is coordinating information technology programs in conjunction with new Common Core instructional standards.
Katie Wilson, a sixth-grade teacher at Mitchell Elementary School, is leading seven sixth- and seventh-graders in their study of volcanoes. She is pleased with the way the voluntary program is going.
“I’m just excited that they are excited,” Wilson said. “The kids have taken on responsibility to do independent research. They aren’t afraid to ask questions or find out the answers. It speaks volumes to their maturity level.”
Wilson said there are nearly 50 active volcanoes in the United States. On the West Coast, that includes Mount St. Helens, which erupted with deadly consequences in 1980, along with Mount Shasta and Mount Rainier.
“They are very interested (in volcanoes), and we had a lot of good discussion about it,” Wilson said.
Edwards said STEM Camp is an outgrowth of parent input from development of the Atwater Elementary School District’s Local Control Accountability Plan. Parents asked for more educational opportunities outside the regular classroom, including summer programs.
Amber Baranowski regularly teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science. This week she is teaching a class on crime scene investigation, which has 22 fifth- through eighth-graders.
Baranowski said her students have divided into teams of four or five to do a multimedia presentation on a hypothetical crime scene, an editorial opinion piece advocating that police departments create a crime scene investigation unit and build models showing where the crime took place.
Part of Baranowski’s classroom is cordoned off with yellow tape, and there is “evidence” where a window was broken and where the bloodied crime “victim” fell on the floor. Learning about genetics, DNA and fingerprinting are part of the process.
Baranowsksi said her students are very eager to learn about CSI practices, and recent television shows have increased interest in the subject. One of her best friends has a master’s degree in forensics and helped her set up the class.
Alexis Sanchez, 11, is a fifth-grader at Aileen Colburn Elementary School. He enjoys exploring how DNA assists in solving crimes.
“I like science,” Sanchez said. “It’s fun and we always make cool stuff. My teacher’s nice. I watch TV and they say the culprit almost got away with it except for DNA.”
Nitza Rodriguez, 13, is an eighth-grader at Mitchell Senior Elementary School. She said science is her favorite subject.
“It’s a fun class,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a lot of hard work to do, but it can be fun, too. You think it’s easy but it’s not. Now that I’m here, I want to learn more about crime scene investigation.”
Faith Ledezma, 12, is a sixth-grader at Aileen Colburn school. When she grows up she said she wants to be either a California Highway Patrol officer or work in an evidence lab.
Her assignment this week is to craft a presentation urging the community to create a crime scene investigation unit. She is a member of the Atwater Cadets, which is part of the police department.
“I’m into police work,” Ledezma said. “It’s very fun.”
Aidan O’Herin, 11, is a sixth-grader at Elmer Wood Elementary School. He is part of a five-student team that is making a miniature version of a Mars rover, using computers and Lego parts.
O’Herin said he is very much into acting at Playhouse Merced, but science is one of his favorite school subjects. He said he likes natural science, particularly learning about photosynthesis and using microscopes.
O’Herin and the others christened their four-wheeled rover model The Pegasus. It is designed to haul two astronauts as they explore Mars, 35 million miles from Earth.
Tammy McDaniels, a fourth-grade teacher at Thomas Olaeta Elementary School, has taught for 22 years. She said interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has increased in recent times after earlier declines.
“With the move to Common Core,” McDaniels said, “we need to expose students to critical-thinking skills. Science is going in the hands-on direction and it pulls them in. We’re integrating math and reading into science.”
McDaniels said students are finding out there is more to science than they thought. One question begets another, and students are eager to find out more. When she was younger, McDaniels said, thought about becoming a doctor, and science has been one of her passions.
Amy Hoopes, a second-grade teacher at Shaffer Elementary School, said her four students are studying the Ring Nebula, a dying star that is more than 2,000 light years from Earth. They are creating a virtual field trip and have researched the Big Bang theory, having fun while they are doing it.
Her students’ assignment for Friday is to develop a presentation to convince NASA to build a prototype Mars rover. Some of her students are to imagine they are newly assigned engineers trying to build a Mars rover capable of transporting two astronauts to the planet.