Even on a sunny Wednesday morning, the brightest place on the South Hill was the main hallway at Chase Middle School.
Eyes shined with anticipation and small hands held creations made of Lego blocks and crafted into tiny cars.
The vehicles were powered the old-fashioned way, with balloons inflated by young lungs and sent on their way down the carpeted hall to breathless cheers.
Around the corner, Kendall Benson and Maggie Jones were fine-tuning a battery-powered Lego truck that Benson controlled with a laptop via Bluetooth.
Considering that the two girls just finished second grade at Mullan Road Elementary School, it was a remarkable achievement.
However, the Lego truck is still a work in progress.
“It won’t turn,” Jones said as she redirected the truck with a nudge of her foot. “We’re still working on that.”
Then again, science and math hardly seemed like work on Wednesday.
The occasion was Spokane Public Schools’ annual STEM camp, which draws upward of 300 kindergartners through eighth-graders each at Chase and Shaw middle schools.
The four-week event ends next week. Much like the Legos, it’s a building block for young minds.
The national emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education has been around for years. But like other disciplines, it’s subject to the summer slide, when students forget much of what they’ve learned in the spring.
STEM summer camps give students a chance to build on their education and explore different concepts that may have been under-emphasized in their classrooms.
Instead of forgetting the STEM concepts they’ve learned at school, kids have the opportunity to practice those concepts and apply them in hands-on activities and real-life scenarios.
Even for the K-8 crowd, real life isn’t that far away. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17% per decade, while other occupations are growing at 9.8%.
Experts cite the importance of STEM education in fostering critical thinkers and the next generation of innovators.
Some were in the house Wednesday. In charge of the 3-D printing class was Lauren Saue-Fletcher, who in spring 2018 captained the Medical Lake High School robotics team. Now she’s going into her sophomore year at Stanford University, where she’s majoring in mathematical and computational science.
Saue-Fletcher worked the Chase camp for three years as a high school student. She had other summer options, but “wanted to come back and teach the kids. Plus, they’re giving us the freedom to make our own curriculum.”
It’s also a chance to give back.
“Being that role model, and teaching 3-D printing is super-empowering. You can think of a design and then you can create it online,” Saue-Fletcher said.
Some technical topics include computer design and coding, drone operating, manga and anime and video construction.
Other offerings were old school: physics with race cars on a track, chemical reactions, and mixed-media art.
And what camp wouldn’t be complete without paper airplanes?
Late Wednesday morning, dozens of campers filed out the south end of the building to test their paper creations.
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