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‘They Didn’t Even Realize They Were Learning’

January 8, 2020
large group of teenagers and adults posing outside with mountains in the background
Photo by Chip Kobulnicky

Anonymous Wyoming philanthropists support vital STEM programming for Wyoming high schoolers.

By Tamara Linse

Kids love the world around them. What better time to thrill and inspire them with science?

The University of Wyoming Teton STEM Academy is a living and learning summer community of students, teachers and scientists working together to help youth follow their dreams by encouraging science education. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math—the jobs of the future.

Wrote one parent of a camper: “Great camp—hope you can continue to offer it to students in the future. Our campers were having so much fun they didn’t even realize they were learning so much until they got home and told us all about the camp.”

This vital summer program is made possible by generous anonymous donors from Teton County.

The Teton STEM Academy teaches fundamental scientific principles and core engineering concepts while beckoning young people into rewarding careers in teaching, mathematics, engineering, computer science and a host of science disciplines from astrophysics to zoology.

In 2019, the camp took place from July 13–20 at UW with the theme of “Return to the Moon and Beyond!” Students experienced life on campus while staying in the residence halls and exploring the science, technology, engineering and math behind a return to the moon and beyond. There were 23 attendees—12 boys and 11 girls—from Casper, Cheyenne, Douglas, Jackson, Kaycee, Lander, Laramie and Riverton.

Activities included observing the universe with professional telescopes; constructing scientific spectrographs to identify chemical elements; creating a sustainable biosphere; extracting DNA; engineering a Mars rover and lander; testing environmental samples for signs of life; and building and launching model rockets. They also explored the UW campus, including the UW Geological Museum and the UW Harry C. Vaughan Planetarium, as well as extracurricular activities in Laramie and the surrounding area, such as hikes in the Snowy Range.

Kids said that their favorite parts of camp were trying new things such as binary code; rocket building; electric circuit cards; using mathematical equations to calculate projectile motion; using a telescope to look at the night sky and chart planets and constellations; learning how the Saturn V rocket engine worked; chatting with a high-energy particle physicist; and visiting the observatory on Jelm Mountain.

A parent reported that their daughter “enjoyed the math aspect and applying it. It gave her a real insight on how her skills can be used toward problem solving. I believe she got to experience getting outside of her comfort zone to compare where she is in studies and how to zone in on any weaknesses she has.”

A parent reported that their son “was not the same person we dropped off as when we picked him up. He was more confident and talked nonstop about everything that happened at camp. Usually we can’t get him to talk about anything, so this was a big change.”

Additionally, through the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium, a NASA astronaut and an engineer from a national laboratory were invited to come to camp and to interact with students on career topics.

Professor Chip Kobulnicky, UW Department of Physics and Astronomy, directed the program. He is an astronomer who studies the chemical compositions of stars and galaxies. He has directed a summer STEM camp at UW since 2003. Assistant Director Megan Candelaria, a lifelong Wyoming resident, is working on her doctorate in mathematics education at UW and is a faculty member of Laramie County Community College. In addition, three camp teachers and five camp counselors educated students and led day-to-day activities that make the camp possible.

The 2019 Teton STEM Academy serves as a key piece of UW’s K–12 outreach portfolio, inspiring youth in science and engineering while creating a positive pre-college connection to UW for the students and their families.

A parent wrote, “This is a phenomenal program, and we are so grateful to the donors. The program shows why the University of Wyoming is a top-notch place to study, with dedicated faculty and engaging students.”

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