Diggin’ It: Teachers, Campers Share Learning in Summer Science Program

Posted: July 30, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Student teacher with campers
On the last day of camp, student teacher Lauren Hansen demonstrates how to use the microscope with campers Andrew Han Kim, Cyrus Ulrich and Garrett Shapiro. A parent observes.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

When you are in fifth grade, it isn’t often that someone asks you for advice. But that’s exactly what youngsters were asked to provide in the science camps offered by the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology (CREST).

Each summer since 1997, CREST has held day camps on the Fairfax Campus that offer hands-on laboratory and field experience to rising fifth, sixth and seventh graders. This summer, one camp was called Dig It! Adventures in Archaeology, and the other was called Crime Solvers. Several of the campers attended both camps, each of which ran for two weeks.

But the campers weren’t the only ones learning. The CREST camps were actually taught by a team of graduate students in the College of Education and Human Development summer course, Science Methods for the Elementary Classroom.

Inquiry-Based Learning

Both camp sessions began with a question. “They have one question that they have to tackle, a question and a scenario,” says CREST director Donna Sterling. “We’ve tried to find things that are interesting to children and that are here [on campus].”

student teacher and camper
Katherine Milazzo listens as future teacher Sara Deshong explains how to record her observations of a chemical reaction.

The hypothetical question facing campers in Dig It! had to do with bones and pottery fragments found on a university residence hall construction site. The group was asked to advise developers on whether they should halt building — and possibly leave incoming students without a place to stay — to excavate the site.

Crime Solvers campers worked as forensic scientists to analyze crime scene evidence from a mock burglary of a professor’s office on campus. “We try to keep the scenario Mason-centric so the children feel that they are really in the midst of an urgent problem needing their solution here on campus,” says Wendy Frazier, assistant professor of science education, who has directed the camps since 2005.

In each case, the investigations were broken down into lessons, so that over days the campers acquired the skills and knowledge they needed to collect evidence and come up with recommendations or solve the crime.

Teaching Teachers

The graduate students in the Science Methods course, taught by Frazier, were divided into teams for each camp. As part of the course requirements, each team developed the scenario and curriculum for its camp, and the students took turns teaching the components. All teaching was done in pairs.

As camp director as well as graduate student instructor, Frazier remained on site at all times to supervise the future elementary school teachers and model science teaching methods as needed. For some of the future teachers, it was their first time actually working with students.

“It is a fantastic experience for them,” says Sterling, who founded the camps and continues to serve as a resource. “After every session, we sit down with the teachers and talk about what worked and what didn’t. And then we adjust the plans for [the next day].”

Many of the future teachers found that even if you have the best lesson plan in the world, it isn’t going to do you much good if you can’t hold the students’ attention. “For many of them, there is a real paradigm shift,” says Sterling. “Classroom management is a big part of teaching.”

Sara Deshong, who is working on a master of education degree, was glad to have the experience. “I was really worried,” she says. “I had not had a lot of exposure to older kids.”

Deshong and classmate Lauren Hansen were the first to teach at the Crime Solvers camp. Over two days, they taught the 27 campers about DNA and how to analyze DNA using gel electrophoresis.

Deshong was pleased with the results. “I know they learned something,” she says, indicating the artwork created by the campers. The posters reflect a number of the concepts from the pair’s presentations.

Sarah Saladini was also delighted to have the opportunity to teach. “This is the best learning experience I’ve had so far,” says Saladini, who is also working on a MEd. “We plan lessons all the time for our courses, but we never get to teach them.”

Says Frazier, “The elementary teacher licensure program is committed to preparing our future teachers through creative, innovative field experiences so they are prepared to meet the learning needs of young learners.”

A Win-Win Program

According to Sterling, the CREST camps have a following and fill up quickly. Many campers, and often their siblings, return in subsequent years. Because of its popularity, there isn’t a lot of marketing for the camp. Information is passed along to families mainly through teachers in the local public school systems.

“I’m probably going to be a scientist, so this really helped me,” says Cristen Centra, a fifth grader at Hayfield Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., who attended both sessions with her brother, Zack. Her favorite part was the archaeology dig and reconstructing a pot from the fragments found.

campers working
Brother and sister Patrick and Caitlin Avilles-Wynkoop and Zack Centra study plaster castings of footprints left at a crime scene.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Brittany Patterson, who will be in seventh grade at Frost Middle School in Fairfax, Va., in the fall, came to the Crime Solvers camp at the urging of an older cousin. “She is studying this kind of stuff at college and she thought I would find it interesting. It has been a lot of fun.”

For Nicholas Lellock, a seventh grader at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, Va., solving crimes is a possible career. He thought he had the camp crime solved by the end of the first week.

“I found out things looking at all the data,” he says, but his favorite part was the field work. “I really like the bagging and the tagging, and then testing the stuff.”

“I am so proud of the future teachers,” says Frazier. “I can say with confidence that each of them has grown as educators through this experience. Their efforts helped increase the [campers’] science knowledge as well as their excitement and enthusiasm for learning.”

Write to at