Happy Campers
Summer youth programs make learning fun for hundreds of young students

by Sherry Wodraska Neaves

Gateway to Engineering participants.
Gateway to Engineering participants Jonathan Taylor, left, and George Apecechea offer assistance as Robert Fetterman performs a remote-controlled simulation of the Mars Rover landing on the Library Mall.

Come summer, the University student body shrinks dramatically. It’s not just that the number of students decreases—the students really are shorter, and younger.

When hot weather hit a few months ago, UTA became a campus full of campers, as it does every summer. From first-graders to high school seniors, hundreds of young students come to science, music, engineering and athletic camps. Still others come to take courses for college credit in the Honors Academy.

From the time she was 12, Heather Dunn honed her skills at UTA’s summer volleyball camp. In high school she anchored an Arlington High team that routinely made the playoffs and last year reached the Class 5A regional semifinals. This season, Heather, once called the “quarterback of Arlington’s offense” by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, will begin her career as a Lady Maverick.

“I came to the camps every year. I got to know the coaches and learn their styles,” she said. “They talked with me, worked with me and helped me improve. I really liked it here and didn’t want to leave. So I signed with UTA.”

Dunn’s not the only one to make the transition from camper to campus. As a high school senior, Brett Ragon attended 1999’s inaugural session of the Summer Science Institute. Today he’s a chemistry sophomore and newly elected president of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Society.

Eleven participants from that first science institute are now enrolled at UTA.

“So many of these kids never even thought about coming to UTA,” institute director Lori Norris said. “We’re just part of their own back yard. But when they come here and get a look behind the scenes, they get really fired up about science and about the University.”

More than 90 students participated in this year’s four-week institute, going to class from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Kenny Gustafson, 13, and Amanda Hearn, 16, taught rats to walk backward in their experimental psychology section.

Summer campers building a bridge out of straws.
As part of the Summer Science Institute's TexPREP Math course, Tony Alvarez and Cynthia Cardenas build a bridge out of straws. The exercise teaches the junior high students practical applications of logic and algebra.

“It’s interesting that they [the rats] can get so motivated to do things they normally wouldn’t do,” Amanda said.
“It’s really cool,” Kenny added. “We learn how the mind works through training rats. It’s better than sitting in class.”

Hands-on approach
Sitting in class is an anathema for Norris and College of Science Dean Neal Smatresk. From the day he became dean, Dr. Smatresk has focused on building children’s innate fascination with science.

Summer course in experimental psychology.
From left: Jessica Lommel, Magali Batteras and Mary Riojas take a break from training their rats during a summer course in experimental psychology.

“We all need to work hard to maintain that interest they have when they’re young,” he said. “Here they can express their love of science. They get hands-on experience they can later translate into their classes in high school and college.”

“It has to be fun,” Norris said. “The reason a lot of kids get bored with science is that they don’t do much hands-on work. Here they use the DNA sequencer and the electron microscopes; they run the planetarium. They’re having so much fun, they don’t realize they’ve learned so much.”

Summer camp instructors are carefully selected. “We want people who relate to kids,” Norris said. “They always love hearing about biology Professor Jonathan Campbell and his travel adventures. He’s been held at gunpoint on three continents.

“It’s important for the kids to see that scientists aren’t just dried-up old men in cramped back rooms. These are young, cool instructors who show the kids that scientists are not geeks. Biology Lecturer Timothy Henry plays the harmonica and writes songs for them. He’s even been known to do a few back flips.”

Enthusiasm reigns at all the summer youth programs. Robert Qualls was so eager to attend his third strings camp that he was the second bass player to sign up. More than 400 students annually attend the camp for junior high and high school violin, viola, cello and bass performers. Through auditions, they are placed in one of six orchestras and present a full concert on the camp’s closing night.

“It’s kind of amazing what they accomplish in just a week,” said camp co-director Sylvia Coatney. “There’s a big difference from hearing them on Monday as they sight read through the music, to sitting in the audience on Friday night.”

Cello devotees had their own special camp this summer, the Texas Cello Academy. Students in the 32-member debut class ranged from sixth-graders to teachers who, like academy director and music Associate Professor Elizabeth Morrow, have played for most of their lives.

The UTA Music Department also offered summer camps in concert band, brass chamber music, jazz improvisation and marching band. Not only do the camps bring prospective students to UTA, they also provide scholarship funding for current student musicians. The strings camp alone generates about $10,000 annually for scholarship programs.

Adventures in engineering
The College of Engineering opens a Gateway to Engineering and builds a Bridge to Engineering during its summer programs. The Gateway camp, for seventh- and eighth-graders, and the Bridge program, for high school freshmen and sophomores, bring 150 students to campus, 50 at a time, for a week-long adventure in engineering.

In earlier incarnations, the engineering camps targeted high school juniors and seniors, but directors soon discovered that by then students had already decided what to study in college.

“We realized that if we were going to make changes in anybody’s minds, we had to get them started a lot earlier,” engineering Associate Dean Lynn Peterson said. “Then we looked at it some more and decided to move to a residential program. We thought it might all work better if parents didn’t have to drop off and pick up their students every day.”

Field trip to Verizon Communications.
Bridge to Engineering students took a field trip to Verizon Communications, where they learned about broadband and wireless technology.

Seems to be working fine. Many students who complete the Gateway program come back to cross the Bridge. Much like the science institute, both engineering offerings emphasize participation over lecture. Every student is part of a small team project, and all the projects are presented at week’s end. The students might dabble with robotics or fashion solar-powered rockets.

Those kinds of projects add the final—and most important—ingredient, the element that brings campers like Heather Dunn and Robert Qualls back year after year after year.

UTA summer camps are just plain fun!



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