FHSU mixes learning with fun at SMEI camps

By Randy Gonzales
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- Whether they realize it or not, the young participants have been learning something while having fun at Fort Hays State University's Science and Mathematics Education Institute's summer camps this month.

The FHSU students who have been teaching the SMEI campers are learning something, too -- if they want to choose a career path as a teacher, specifically in math or science.

For the fourth year, undergraduate students serving as Noyce Scholars instructed the children, ranging from second-graders to eighth-graders, in four-day camps on the FHSU campus. The six Fort Hays State students received hands-on experience in the classroom, while their young students received hands-on learning about science and math.

"I love it so much, more than I thought I would," said Jenna Klein, a Noyce Scholar from Abilene, who will be a junior this fall. "These kids are so sweet and so excited to learn about science. They're really interested and have fun learning. It's really fun to teach them when they're excited about it."

Dr. Paul Adams, dean of the College of Education, said the purpose of the SMEI summer camps was twofold. He is trying to recruit future science and math teachers, and he also wants to provide science and math experiences for school children.

"We have a good program to prepare science and math teachers. State wide, we have a shortage. We're trying to get people early and interested in it," Adams said. "One of the things I wanted to do, I needed to provide (science, math and technology) experiences for kids. Kids will make their career decisions by middle school. That's part of what these camps are about, get them interested in doing it."

SMEI has four camps in June. The first one this summer was a new one, involving the science behind magic tricks. At the end of the week there was a magic show for parents. Last week's camp was dedicated to learning about engineering and physics. This week, there are two camps. One is devoted to the engineering design process, nanotechnology and rockets, while the other is a new one for middle school girls, where among the things they will learn is composting, beekeeping and planting in flower pots. The final camp week is dedicated to robots, with experiments and challenges.

"Each project required the children to use the scientific method," said Dr. Valerie Zelenka, assistant professor of teacher education, who is involved in the planning and supervision of the camps. "In small groups, they made initial observations, came up with a question or questions based on their observations, developed a hypothesis or prediction, conducted their experiment, recorded the results and drew conclusions, and shared and discussed their findings with the whole group."

The six FHSU students who are Noyce Scholars are involved for six weeks. They are trained for teaching in a classroom setting for a week, then are with the children for four weeks. The final week, they work on a project together as a group.

Another of the Noyce Scholars is Breanna Meier, a junior-to-be this fall from Lincoln who is majoring in biology and secondary education. She wants to teach math and science in middle school and high school in a small school district in Kansas.

"It's been fun," she said. "I've had several friends go through the program in the past, and they always talk about how much they loved it and how they learned more about the age group they want to teach."

One morning last week, Klein and Meier taught the kids about the science behind hula hoops. The young students learned about things such as torque, mass, weight, gravity, diameter and circumference using different-sized hula hoops with different amounts of sand in them. At the end of the session the children had a hula hoop contest to see who was best at gyrating the hoop around his or her body.

"They learn so much about science and math," Meier said. "It's really hands-on. They get to do experiments. We ask them a lot of questions, provoking thought. They think about it that way, instead of being lectured to. It's more open discussion."

And it's fun, said Benjamin Dome, an 11-year-old from Hays who will be attending Victoria Middle School in the fall.

"They teach you really cool stuff," he said. "You get to do really fun stuff."

Adams said a program like the summer SMEI camps is important for FHSU and the community.

"It says what we are," Adams said. "It shows our commitment, not just to being here, but being engaged with the community. It shows our commitment to the community and also our commitment to the state of Kansas."

"If we can capture interest at this age, then we look at long-term workforce development. This is where we've got to start," Adams added. "This is a great opportunity for us to both work with the community and have our students engaged."

Meier said the SMEI camp, along with the several other camps FHSU hosts during the summer, provide both learning and a sense of community.

"They have a lot of camps; I think it's awesome," she said. "It brings kids on campus. I hope they're going to be future Tigers one day."

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