New Laurel summer camp mixes science with summer fun

"They have a lot of good activities that really challenge our brains," Terrapin STEM camper

When asked if she knew what STEM means, second-grader Madison Dankwa answered, "No, not really."

Yet this summer, she's learning about it — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — every day.

Madison is a student at Terrapin STEM Camp in Laurel, and in the course of one morning there, she held a millipede and learned it had 400 legs, and took part in an archaeological dig for "dinosaur bones."

"Dinosaurs were extinct because there was an asteroid that came down, and the dinosaurs got killed," she said.

"It doesn't feel highly academic to the kids," said Ami Holden, the camp's executive director, who teaches at Gorman Crossing Elementary School in Laurel. "They don't know what they're doing. I haven't seen a program quite like it, and that was partly our reason for starting it. We felt that the kids needed something like that in the summer."

Holden, along with fellow Gorman Crossing teacher Susan Bow and local engineer Adam Islam, started Terrapin STEM Camp at St. Mary of the Mills School this summer to offer kids in kindergarten through fifth grade a range of interactive STEM activities, from designing LEGO robots to working with 3D printers to learning about "creepy crawlers."

"I think I'm going to go for another week because I think it's really fun," said Emma Testa, a fifth-grader this fall at St. Mary of the Mills. "And they have a lot of good activities that really challenge our brains."

So far, 135 students have registered for the camp, which began June 27 and runs through August. A maximum of 40 campers participate each week.

Registration costs $250 for a single week and $235 per week if registering for multiple weeks.

"Part of our mission is not just to provide summer camp; we really want to [reach out] to populations that are underrepresented in STEM fields," Holden said. "And here we have such a diverse population from which to draw that we're seeing a lot of success."

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, residents in the city of Laurel are 30 percent white, 49 percent African-American, 9 percent Asian and 15 percent Hispanic or Latino.

Several higher education studies have found that minority students are vastly underrepresented in STEM college majors, and that the United States ranks behind dozens of other industrialized countries in the number of STEM bachelor's degrees awarded every year.

"It's really concerning that the United States actually falls behind many countries in engineering and mathematics, in terms of kids pursuing these degrees in college," Holden said. "And it's perplexing because we have many opportunities here. We're surrounded by so many companies ... the APL and NASA. It's just everywhere, and yet we're having this dearth."

A few people have donated tuition-free weeks of camp that Holden and her staff have been able to extend to students in the community who "maybe wouldn't get a chance to come to a camp like this, but as you can see are doing well," Holden said. "So that's really a big part of our drive."

At Gorman Crossing Elementary, Holden teaches social studies and language arts during the day, and has been running after-school STEM activities for the past eight or nine years, since she won a grant for a LEGO robotics kit.

"I was teaching first grade at the time, and we were just making simple machines," she said. "Every year, it got bigger and bigger, and we added more classes. And we were coding and we were doing robotics, and then we were doing earthquakes and natural disasters in general.

"In pretty much any science field you could pick, kids were interested in it."

A lot of parents came to Holden and said they wanted something more for their kids to do during the summer.

"I just thought, I would really like that laid back feeling of camp, where we have the time to finish projects, we have the time to stretch things out if we want to," she said. "So here, if they don't get something done, it's fine. Or if it's really hot and we want to stop and go have a water fight, we can do that, you know?

"During the school year, as a teacher, you don't always have that luxury," she said.

Students at Terrapin STEM Camp enjoy the freedom they're given in completing their projects, and the opportunities to take breaks and go outside.

"It's fun because we get to build robots and we get to do mazes and we get to do Minecraft on computers, and we have water games outside that we do for sports," said Sara Munroe, 8, a third-grader this fall who is in the middle of designing a robotic puppy. "We have spray bottles and we have buckets of water and the teachers actually let us dunk them with water.

"I mean, they get really wet."

The camp's counselors are students from local universities, such as University of Maryland and University of Maryland-Baltimore County, who have a focus on engineering and elementary education.

The teachers, Holden and Bow, plan the curriculum for the camp and organize it at the ground level, while Islam helps with the operations and website, and contributes his professional perspective as an engineer.

"I feel like I can come up with amazing activities for the classroom," Holden said. "I know how to motivate them, I know how to organize them, I know what kids like to do. But sometimes I don't know what the end picture is. So I really rely on Adam [Islam] as well as a lot of other people in the engineering community to talk to me and help me know where the kids should be going with this."

Holden hopes to open two additional camps in the next six years. For now, she's happy to be serving students in Laurel, and that the campers are learning STEM without really knowing it.

"So you're not learning, you're building more," Sara said. "It's hands-on science."

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