Summer camps bring STEM education to life

Erica Martin

A faint fish smell permeating the air, rising 10th grader Kacie Zuleger plunged her finger into a dissected shark fetus to feel its eye. “I didn’t expect to dissect anything, but I hoped we would,” the Arnold High School student said. “What’s a science camp without opening up something?”

Zuleger is one of about 90 area ninth- and 10th-grade students participating this week in the STEM Institute’s summer camps at FSU Panama City. Last week, more than 100 seventh and eighth graders attended the camp, which rotates through 50-minute sessions focused on marine life, robotics, chemistry, 3D printing and electronics.

“It’s actually been really fun. I do learn a lot, and I just love doing the hands-on activities,” Zuleger said.

The STEM Institute’s summer camps forgo the traditional classroom setting to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects through projects and experiments.

During the chemistry session, students learned how to use science in a survival setting. Students previously had learned to make a battery and on Wednesday turned their attention toward the uses for a battery.

“The first two days, we used chemistry to make electricity. Now we will use electricity to make chemistry,” Dan Flisek, a scientist from Naval Surface Warfare Center-Panama City Division, told the students.

“It’s actually fun,” said student Elijah Jackson, who hopes to become a chemist. “It’s really inspiring to me.”

Kurt Morris, an engineering technician from Gulf Coast State College, taught students in another session how to use a 3D printer. Students were tasked with designing a device to hold down a beach towel.

“They sketch it out first, then they model it, and they get to print it,” Morris said as buzzing printers created the previous class’s designs one layer at a time. “They all seem interested in the technology, and it’s fun.”

During other sessions, students built robots to achieve specific tasks and tested wind turbine designs to produce electricity.

Kathy Nelson from the Florida Panhandle Technical College in Chipley said the interactive nature of the camps helps promote learning in a fun way.

“I think the hands-on activities that are involved in STEM education are exactly what our kids need,” she said. “We’re not just feeding them an answer out of a book.”

Nelson began collaborating with the STEM Institute five years ago as a team teacher. Since then, she has created a STEM club, a Florida Lego League team and a STEM summer camp in her own school district.

“I got hooked on STEM; it was awesome,” she said of her experience with the STEM Institute. “It’s inspiring for me to come here. It keeps making me want to be better and do more for people.”

The STEM Institute’s summer camps continue through Friday.