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Water Lessons at Citizen Scientist Camp

In the middle of summer camp, elementary school students scrutinize dirt-specked water as it seeps out of rain gardens in plastic containers. Holding up a tube containing fuchsia water to show her instructor, 11-year-old Aimee Ebeling wears a solemn expression, conveying the presence of both pollution and a problem.

Learning science is an experiential process, something young students need to get their hands dirty and do. As doctoral candidates in science education at TCU, Kelly Feille ’14 and Jenesta Nettles grappled with the challenge: how could they help cultivate a lifelong fascination with the power of science?

As an answer, they established the Citizen Scientists summer camp in partnership with TCU’s Andrews Institute of Mathematics and Science Education. Last summer, they hosted a free one-week camp. Participants journeyed to a creek near campus to measure water pollution levels.

This summer, the women offered two sessions for kids entering grades three through seven. In week one, campers learned about watershed systems and measured the microscopic health of the Trinity River watershed.

In a separate week two, campers, including Aimee, are searching for a solution to water pollution problems. The 16 kids ranging in age from 9 to 12 each chose a combination of plants to add to a personal rain garden, a concoction of sand, gravel, dirt and organic material designed to collect water and absorb some of the chemical culprits of pollution.

The students split into small teams. On Thursday, at a round table inside the spacious Potter Lab, Aimee measures out compost tea before Grace Lacina pours it into the rain garden she planted the day before.

Austin Johnson, at age 9 the team’s youngest member, keeps an eye on a timer as he shows off his own assortment of fern and lantana plants, half art project and half living filtration machine. Aimee and Austin are both returning participants from the first year, and both expressed an urgent need for people to be responsible and conserve water.

Austin’s mom Amy Johnson, a special education teacher with the Dallas Independent School District, observes the activity. She, Austin and a cousin rode the train to Fort Worth because Austin wanted to do a summer activity involving science or math. Inspired at an early age by the Captain Planet and the Planeteers cartoon, the boy’s interests include water conservation, recycling, and taking apart then reassembling household gadgets.

Amy Johnson said she searched online for a STEM-themed camp that would welcome kids his age. Other than Feille and Nettles’ Citizen Scientists, she couldn’t find any. She said she appreciates the opportunity to keep her son engaged in inquiry before he starts the fourth grade. “The camp develops that love of science.”

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