UW AstroCamp Provides Fun Science Experience for Students

June 19, 2008

There's more to the University of Wyoming's AstroCamp than physics and astronomy.

There's one day after another of full-fledged fun.

"When we started AstroCamp in 2003, we wanted to find ways to show kids that science is interesting and fun and not scary and complicated," says UW professor Chip Kobulnicky, one of the co-founders of the six-day, hands-on camp for middle school-aged students. Danny Dale, another professor in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy, is the other co-founder. "We've had a lot of positive experiences since 2003 and I think the kids are having a lot of fun again this year."

Of course they are. They're building and launching model rockets, experimenting with liquid nitrogen and using UW's high-powered observatories to view faraway galaxies and planets.

What's not fun about all that?

"Every day is so full that it's not even funny," says Laramie's Rory Eggleston, who is one of 22 participants at this year's camp. "And all of the stuff we're doing is really fun."

The students have so much fun, in fact, that they have a tough time picking a favorite part of each day, says Michelle Long, who has worked as a teacher at AstroCamp for the past four years.

"When I ask them what their favorite part of the day was, I usually hear four or five different things," says Long, program and exhibit director at The Science Zone in Casper. "That's what makes AstroCamp so great. It gets them excited about science at an early age and shows them that they don't have to be afraid of science."

A day after staying up late to observe the night skies -- Ranchester's Sarah Maze and Dayton's Kaitlin Reed rave about seeing three of Jupiter's moons -- the AstroCampers spent Wednesday morning launching rockets from a field on the UW campus.

After watching several of his fellow campers' rockets soar high and far, Cody's Max Dickerman carefully places an igniter into the nozzle of his model rocket, secures it with a plug and attaches electrical clips to the igniter.

"We're ready!" yells Everett Schlawin, a participant in UW's Summer Undergraduate Research Assistantship Program who oversees each launch. "Three . 2 . 1!"

At the end of the countdown, Dickerman pushes the button on the remote launcher and a plume of white smoke bursts from the rocket as it shoots into the cloud-covered sky above Laramie.

Dickerman's rocket doesn't get far, though. It explodes in midair and falls to the ground in two pieces about 50 yards from the launch pad.

No matter. Dickerman and several other campers are thrilled with the crash-and-burn.

"That is awesome!" Justin White of Bar Nunn tells Dickerman as they inspect the wreckage.

Hurrying to catch a glimpse himself, Reid Bruickshank of Casper exclaims, "Awesome!"

As other campers prepare to set off their rockets, Ranchester's Maze is still talking about Tuesday's night expedition to Red Buttes Observatory, located nine miles south of Laramie on U.S. Highway 287.

There, AstroCampers used the observatory's 24-inch telescope to view Jupiter, Saturn and a star galaxy, among other things.

"It was cool," Maze says. "I've always been interested in the stars because I think it's amazing that we live in one galaxy but that there are other galaxies and stars and planets out there, millions of light years away. That's cool."

The week's activities also include processing astronomical images on computers, constructing scientific spectographs to identify chemical elements and assembling a satellite while underwater.

AstroCamp provides more than science education, too. Long says campers "experience college life" while living in the UW dormitories during the week and "make friends with other kids who share their same interests."

"It's a cool camp," says Bar Nunn's White. "We're learning about the stars, we get to look through the big telescopes and find the planets and we get to build rockets, too. It's fun."

The camp is funded through grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Cody's Max Dickerman prepares his rocket for launch at the University of Wyoming's 2008 AstroCamp.

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