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Middle School Students Learn About Science, Space at UW’s Windy Ridge Foundation Astro Camp

July 15, 2021
photos of a watermelon about to be dropped and smashed on the sidewalk after dropping
Danny Dale (top), a professor in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy, and an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, gets set to drop a watermelon from the roof of the Physical Sciences Building. The scattered remnants of the watermelon (bottom) are seen on the sidewalk. Twenty-two middle school students participated in the experiment, in which they figured out the height of the Physical Sciences Building on the UW campus by timing how quickly a tennis ball, wooden ball and watermelon drop from the structure’s roof. The activity was part of the Windy Ridge Foundation Astro Camp. (UW Photos)

A few select middle school students were given a unique problem to solve: determine the height of the University of Wyoming’s Physical Sciences Building by measuring the speed at which a tennis ball, wooden ball and even a watermelon fall from the structure’s roof.

The scene played out July 13 during the Windy Ridge Foundation Astro Camp on the UW campus. The weeklong camp concludes July 17.

“We’re using science to figure out the height of the building,” says Danny Dale, a professor in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy, and an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We’re taking an indirect measurement to measure the height of the building. Using a tape measure along the side of the building would be dangerous.”

Many of the campers, stopwatches in hand, predicted the balls would fall at roughly the same speed due to gravity. The students received a surprise when Dale dropped a large watermelon from the roof that went splat on the sidewalk and broke into hundreds of pieces.

When the fruit cleared, students provided their stopwatch times on how fast the balls fell to Earth. Jim Hoffman, a math and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher from Riverside High School in Basin, and who served as a camp instructor, compiled the times on a laptop. When the results were tabulated, it was determined the Physical Sciences Building was approximately 50 feet tall.

Twenty students from Wyoming and two from Colorado are participating in the camp, which is focusing on exoplanets. Exoplanets are described as planets outside our solar system, meaning they orbit a star other than our sun. Astronomers have confirmed more than 4,000 exoplanets orbiting distant stars, with many more exoplanets waiting confirmation, Dale says.

Campers, who are entering seventh or eighth grade this fall, were chosen based on demonstrated interest and academic potential in math, science, astronomy and space.

Brendon Walker, who will be a seventh grader this fall at Mountain View Middle School, described the Astro Camp “as a fun thing to do in the summer.”

“Science is a cool thing to learn about,” he says. “I always thought it would be cool to be an astronaut.”

Chloe DeFoort, who is going into the eighth grade at a middle school in Fort Collins, Colo., says she has always been interested in space and liked seeing the constellations in UW’s Harry C. Vaughan Planetarium.

“It’s interesting to learn the universe is expanding in 4D rather than 3D, and learning about black holes,” she says.

Walker and DeFoort, as well as the other campers, also participated in an activity in which they learned how to grow food in boxes -- a scenario that may become necessary if astronauts were to ever land on Mars. Campers used LED lights and lined the boxes with aluminum foil to reflect light that will help the plants grow. They also created a water source by building tubes that could carry the water to the soil.

“On Friday, we’ll find out if it grows,” Walker says of their plant experiments.

The camp includes three in-service Wyoming science teachers and five UW students, who serve as camp counselors.

In 2020, the Windy Ridge Foundation made a $250,000 gift to support the Windy Ridge Foundation Astro Camp, which aims to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers while introducing the K-12 community to science programs offered through UW.

“I want the students to get a firsthand feel for how science is fun; how science and math can be used to explain what we observe from the universe; and an idea of how UW would be a great place for their college education,” Dale says.

Astro Camp attendees, listed by hometown, are:

Cheyenne -- Nabeel Barakat.

Fort Bridger -- Emily Anderson.

Fort Collins, Colo. -- Chloe DeFoort.

Lander -- Lincoln Hitchcock and Fisher Paes-Barreto.

Laramie -- Lucas Ackerman, Kili Learned, Ozzie Lewis, Graeme Montgomery, Katherine Murray and Eli Plumb.

Mountain View -- Essie Black, Kayla Fountain, Yunalesca Geldert, Brynne Klopfenstein, Brendon Walker and Josephine Wilson.

Rock Springs -- Nevaeh Bryant, Alexander Croft, Lincoln Smith and Eli Wall.

Severance, Colo. -- Brooklyn Frazen.

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