Youngsters Make Ordinary Materials Do Extraordinary Things at Science Camp

Aug 10, 2017

Laurita Nerby of St. Mary’s preparing her Mars lander at ANSEP Science Camp.
Credit ANSEP

For about a hundred lucky middle school students this summer, the University of Alaska campus becomes their home as they solve unique engineering problems at the annual Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program Science Camp. 

At this time of year, the Anchorage campus is quiet. The kids can be found among the largely deserted buildings, past empty parking lots, past the looming Conoco Phillips Science Building, and around the corner. They're playing ball, taking a break from more than a week of concentrated work, solving unique problems, and crafting engineering solutions using common materials in unusual ways.

Most of the work takes place inside the ANSEP building, and it is rigorous and fun at the same time. All the middle school students chose to be here. Those from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta came for the same reason, and it has little to do with engineering.

“I just came here to have something to do," said one student.

Ayva Matchian of Chevak attending ANSEP Science Camp.
Credit ANSEP

“I wanted to come because I didn’t want to stay in St. Mary’s, like, every single day, cause it’s a small village and all I do is just walk,” said another student.

“I can actually do something instead of laying around at home being bored,” added one more.

Audrey Alstrom is the Regional Director of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program Middle School Academy, and the director of the Science Camp.

She describes a day that would make anyone tired. It involves academic work and solving difficult problems, things they won’t find in a book. Yet these kids do it with intensity. No one has to tell them to get to work.

“They’re here 24 hours a day. They’re busy doing academic activities. Then they have lights out at 9:30,” Alstrom said. “Then up and at it again the next morning at 6:00.”

One week into camp, students have already done a lot, but the favorite of most is the time spent building a computer. They plugged parts into a motherboard and it took some care.

"If we shocked it or messed it up, our computer wouldn’t work," Ayva Matchian from Chevak explained. “We grounded ourselves. We put our foot on the ground and touched metal for how many seconds, and then touch it, and then put it in the computer."

For most, it wasn’t all that easy to build computers that worked, but Adryan Green from Bethel says that he had a head start on that project.

“I just know how to. I’ve seen, like, YouTube videos,” he said.

Students at Science Camp not only do the work of creating unique engineering solutions, but have to reflect on what worked and did not work in the process. While others had moved on to other projects, Sarah Bowker labored over a keyboard typing in her evaluation. She wrote that she loved making a computer, but shared some self-criticism:

“One thing that didn’t work for me was how slow it went. I’m really impatient."

“You’ve all been using the engineering process,” Alstrom said, standing in front of the class. “You just didn’t know it.”

The engineering process, as she explains it, requires that each student understand the problem they’re solving and its parameters, like materials and time frame. For example, they had to design a Mars lander that could handle the shock of landing, while keeping the astronaut safe. In this case, the astronaut was a marble and the materials: paper cup, straws, duct tape, bubble wrap, and a pack of cards.

Adryan Green of Bethel at ANSEP Science Camp.
Credit ANSEP

The next step was going online to do research before coming up with a design. Then the teams made and tested their designs. Laurita Nerby from St. Mary’s says her team didn’t do so well. They lost their marble astronaut.

“Yep. Just tipped over.”

Adrian’s team did fairly well, bringing their Mars lander near the target with all on board. But it was Ayva’s team that took the engineering process that all-important extra step. When their initial design did not perform well, they went back and made it better, starting with re-designing the parachute.

“The first time we used pipe-cleaners, which were bendable and a bad idea.” Says Ayva, “So we went with the straws because they were stiffer.”

It worked.

“Yeah, I’m starting to like this engineering thing.”

It’s too early to know if an engineer was born at the ANSEP Science Camp this summer. That will take years to discover. Meanwhile students have moved on to their next challenge: designing robotic fish. Those instructions may be a little harder to find on YouTube.