Lawrence Lewis IV tests the pH balance of water. Lewis created filters for the water, attempting to bring the pH down to 7

A group of middle school students are playing scientist for the summer.

Held at Kokomo High School, an Indiana GEAR UP: STEM Exploration camp in partnership with Purdue University is putting the campers out into their environments and encouraging them to get hands-on. The goal, according to Virginia Bolshakova, director for out-of-school programs for Indiana GEAR UP, is to open students’ eyes to what’s going on around them.

“Our goal is to give students opportunities to explore their environment in the schoolyard in ways they may not get a chance to during the school year through various activities,” she said.

The camp focused on four major lesson strands: abiotic, biotic, ecology, and engineering and was open to all Maple Crest sixth graders.

For one of the activities as part of the ecology lesson, the students went out behind the high school and caught insects and learned about other animals that roam school grounds that many of the students had never seen before.

Student Trey Marciniak was one student who caught a variety of insects, including a large wolf spider.

“We’re learning about so many fascinating things about bugs. I just learned about all different species and some new things about the shade and light and how it can change the effects and how the insects will try to move on to the shade so they don’t burn up,” he said. “It is actually really fun.”

Then, an activity for the abiotic lesson taught the students how to test the pH balance of water. The students then took a bottle of dirty water and created different filters that they ran the water through, attempting to make the water neutral.

Student Lawrence Lewis IV’s water started off with a pH of 13. After running it through a filter he created with other camp members, the water was retested and had a pH of 9. Lewis then discussed ways he could filter the water again to try to get it to a pH of 7, making it neutral.

Support Local Journalism

Now, more than ever, the world needs trustworthy reporting—but good journalism isn’t free. Please support us by making a contribution.

Lewis said he wanted to be a part of the camp to learn more about the sciences.

“I wanted to keep me occupied for the summer because I didn’t have much to do. It just gave me a good opportunity to do something different and learn some new things about science,” he said.

For the biotic lesson, students learned about habitat connections and the food chain, bird watching, owl pellet dissections, and skeleton recovery. Finally, for the engineering lesson, the students designed, built, tested, analyzed, and rebuilt rockets.

Student Caitlin Finnley decided to join the camp after seeing the promotional video that was played at Maple Crest before school let out for the summer.

“When I first watched the video and saw the hands-on activities they were doing, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I think I really want to do that.’ They looked like they were having so much fun, and I just knew I was going to have a boring summer,” she said. “I’ve ended up having a lot of fun.”

Finnley said her favorite activities were bird watching and exploring the woods.

Maple Crest Middle School English Teacher Shanna Hampton, who helped oversee the camp, said one of the reasons students really enjoyed it was because it allowed the students to be the leaders, rather than simply students.

“They’re the leaders; we’re just the facilitators. They get to go out and explore. Yes, we set the foundation for them, but we leave it open for them to come up with the questions and explore. I think that has helped. It lets them step outside the box,” she said.

Kokomo School Corp. was one of only 10 Indiana school districts to partner with Purdue University in the first year of the GEAR UP grant awarded by Purdue through the U.S. Department of Education. The grant amount is anticipated to be $3.5 million annually. The partner school districts will receive support from Purdue for all seven years the grant is administered.