Hays, KS – Most of us find intrinsic joy in being out in nature, and for some, thinking about the science of the natural world brings them even more joy. Middle and high school students who are fascinated by science topics like why there are so many species or how animals live in severe environments can satisfy that curiosity at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History Science Camps. Each summer, David Levering, Director of Education at the Sternberg, leads camps in which students can immerse themselves in paleontology and biology.
The camps are equal parts education and adventure. Camp students have explored the sparkling white sands in the Chihuahuan Desert, stunning rock formations at Arches National Park, and areas full of fossils right here in western Kansas.
Over the past three years, the Sternberg has offered Field Naturalist Camp and Paleontology Expedition Camp for middle school students, and Southwest Biology Camp and Sternberg Paleontology Camp for high school students. The two paleontology camps make use of the rich fossil resources in Kansas, while Field Naturalist Camp takes students to Utah, and Southwest Biology Camp take students New Mexico.
The benefits of attending one of the camps are many. Jackson Stanton, a high school student from Hays who participated in the Southwest Biology Camp said, “I have found a calling for my life.” Stanton plans to pursue a career in herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles.
For Emiri White, a middle school student who attended the Paleontology Expedition Camp, getting to find and identify fossils the way a paleontologist would was a “great learning experience.” White added, “That was probably the part I most enjoyed about the camp.”
The popularity of the camps is due to how they are structured. Camp students learn science techniques by being allowed to try them out for themselves. It’s not uncommon for a camp student to hold a wild bat or dig out part of a mosasaur fossil – under supervision, of course.
At first some students may feel a bit unsure or uncomfortable working outside, holding animals, or operating equipment. Those feelings quickly fade as students get practice doing these new techniques in a safe environment. After returning from camp, students reported feeling more confident when approaching new challenges.
Levering and the other camp instructors welcome and encourage questions from participants, and hold regular discussions to enrich each student’s understanding of science. These conversations complement the field-based portions of the camps by building the educational foundation behind the activities in which students take part. “This [structure] sets our program apart from the way other programs operate,” Levering said.
The instructors also talk about college and career paths – topics that are especially timely for the high schoolers. Christopher Noll, a student from California, participated in the Sternberg Paleontology Camp and didn’t expect to hear about these topics, but commended the instructors for talking about them. “I am better prepared for college in general having spent . . . two weeks at camp,” Noll said.
In addition to the regular biology and paleontology camps in 2017, the Sternberg will offer Expedition: Ecuador Camp, featuring a trip to the Andes Mountains during which students will observe and document the unique plant and animal life in the region.
Maggie Wolf of Kansas City is planning on attending the Expedition: Ecuador Camp. Ecuador is home to hundreds of amphibian and reptile species, hundreds of mammal species, and over a thousand bird species (many of which, Wolf is eagerly looking forward to seeing). Getting to explore an area with such biodiversity is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the camp students. Wolf said, “I’ve never been to an area like where we will be going and the animals will be entirely new to me, so I can’t wait to see all there is to see!”
Next summer will be Wolf’s third year in a row of attending one of the Sternberg Museum Science camps. In fact, a number of students – “camp veterans” – come back year after year. Wolf said that she benefited from returning because she was able to ask “more informed and thoughtful questions” about the topics that interested her. Arabelle Konrad, another camp veteran from Michigan, said having prior knowledge from the previous year made getting into the swing of things easier the second time around. “I still remembered the fundamentals and I knew what to expect when out in the field,” Konrad said.
The students also enjoy seeing friends they’ve made in previous years and creating new friendships. “We all are interested in biology,” Wolf said. That common interest keeps the camp students learning and growing together.
Registration for the 2017 Sternberg Museum Science Camps is now open at sternberg.fhsu.edu/active-learning/camps. If you are interested in supporting the camps, visit the donations page: sternberg.fhsu.edu/active-learning/camps/donate-scholarships/