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Elementary Discoveries
Fifth-graders from a Huntington Beach school stargaze, learn to launch rockets and toy with the principles of gravity during their five-day stay at Astrocamp in Idyllwild.
By Stacy Wong
Los Angeles Times

Sunday, May 16, 1993

IDYLLWILD -- Fifth-grader Jeff Foust was finding the simulated weightlessness of outer space a little hard to deal with.

The 11-year-old from Circle View Elementary School in Huntington Beach learned quickly that assembling something in an environment with little gravity, in this case a swimming pool, is not easy.

He spent a few frustrating minutes trying to fit a red plastic pipe into another plastic piece. "Sometimes the parts would slip out," he said. "It's harder than you think."

The exercise was one of several science lessons taught to 120 fifth-grade students from Circle View during a five-day stay at the Desert Sun Science Center, also called Astrocamp.

The camp stresses teaching science with a hands-on approach and stimulating student interest. About 65 schools and youth organizations from Orange County use the camp. Teachers and officials from Circle View said it provides a perfect mix of fun and academics, and of teaching physical and space sciences in addition to natural science.

"I think we struggle even at this early age with kids getting turned off to science," said Circle View Principal Dan Moss. The camp "generates an excitement; the students say, 'Yes, I can do this.' "

Circle View students interviewed recently said they enjoyed the hands-on aspect of their lessons, which made science more interesting.

Hikes, fossil hunting and rocket-making were among the activities planned for the week.

"Here, you get to go on the hikes and stuff," said Michelle Pena. "In class, you read about (science), but you want to experience it."

She said her favorite activity was looking at constellations in the camp's planetarium. "You can see the stars better, and they're closer to you," she said.

Quentin Edwards' favorite activity was the night hike he took on his first evening at camp, when he heard different animals and had to search for his instructor during a solo portion of the outing. "At first, I was kind of scared," he said, "but then I realized I'm one of the biggest animals (in the forest). Our instructor told us to imagine we were predators looking for prey."

Teacher Hilary Hartter, who coordinated the trip, said the hands-on approach to learning works well in science education. "Children learn by discovering," she said. "You give them the background information of course, but this way, they remember."

She said the idea to take Circle View students to a science camp came from Arlene Thomason, a teacher who used to take students from the gifted program on an annual camping trip. Thomason had to stop six years ago when she became ill, but then she found out about Astrocamp, run by the nonprofit Guided Discoveries.

The school decided to open the camping trip to all fifth-graders, but Thomason died in 1987. "I guess this whole thing is sort of in her memory," Hartter said.

During their stay at the camp, students can learn about telescopes and gaze at planets and shooting stars under the Idyllwild sky. Students said the night sky in the San Jacinto Mountains is much darker because there is no major city nearby.

"I saw the Big Dipper, and Mars and Jupiter," said Jaime Le Blanc as she waited in a sunny meadow to launch a rocket she had designed and made. "It was really neat."

Next to her sat Courtney Waddell, who had attached paper fins she had designed to her rocket's hull, made from a plastic, two-liter soda bottle. "It looks like a flower, I thought it was different," she said. A wad of yellow clay shaped into a nose cone sat on the rocket's tip.

Courtney and her classmates had spent the morning learning about the scientific principle discovered by English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Compressed air would be pumped into the rockets, the students explained, and the force of the air leaving the rocket (the action) should cause the rocket to rise (the reaction).

When Courtney's turn came, she put on a hard hat as two other students stood nearby to measure the angle of her rocket's ascent. A perfect launch would register at 90 degrees; most of the launches were around 50 or 60 degrees.

Courtney was pleased when her rocket shot up into the air at 60 degrees. "I didn't think it would go up that far," she said. "They don't realize what they're learning because they're having such a great time," said Tom Woods, one of the parent volunteers accompanying the group and whose son, Adam, was among the students on the trip.

Woods helped coordinate a paper recycling drive to help defray the cost of the trip for the students. The five-day camp costs $200 per child. The school asks parents every year to vote on whether the trip should be offered, and each year the answer has been yes.

"This adds value to the kids' education," Woods said. "This is one of the things as a parent I would be happy to pay for."

David Goodsell, vice president of Guided Discoveries and a former science teacher at Tustin High School, said the camp offers college-type instruction brought down to a fifth-grade level. "Our hope is we will trigger some response in a child, so that even if they don't become a scientist or engineer, they will be scientifically literate," he said. "We want them to at least be aware of the importance of science and technology so they become effective citizens of the future."

PHOTO: (A2) Ready for Liftoff: Fifth-grade students from a Huntington Beach elementary school got hands-on science lessons during a five-day stay at Desert Sun Science Center in Idyllwild. Above, Don Robinson watches as Jimmy Schauerte, 11, gets ready to launch a rocket he made.
PHOTO: COLOR, Students try to simulate the weightlessness of outer space, above, and Tracy Hayes watches a rocket launch, below.
PHOTO: Jusin Dezonia studies in his Astrocamp dorm bed before lights out.

Copyright: Los Angeles Times

Last Updated: 02/27/01
Copyright 1998 David Gotfredson