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Summer camp encourages girls in STEM fields

Students send lunar landers to the ‘moon’

Sponsor story — Grand Rapids native Christina Koch set the record for the longest spaceflight for a woman at 328 days. Williamina Fleming was a scientist who studied exoplanets and discovered 310 variable stars.

Students learned about these and other women who have achieved astronomical success recently at the first-ever “Girls that Change the World” summer camp at Van Andel Institute.

VAI hosted the four-day, all-girls camp for fourth- through sixth-graders from area schools. The mission: to encourage and inspire girls by exposing them to women in STEM fields.

“In the past, girls didn’t get as many opportunities, and we are making up for that because girls can do just as many great things as boys can,” said Runi Karai, a soon-to-be sixth-grader at CA Frost Elementary who attended the camp.

She and other campers put their engineering skills to the test, designing, building and testing lunar landers. They created mini spacecrafts — manned by astronauts made of marshmallows — from straws, cups, tape, aluminum foil, and other supplies. They tallied the cost of materials as they built.

Then, from a marked height, they dropped their landers onto the “moon”, a large crater-covered paper surface. If the astronaut fell out of their spacecraft, the mission was considered unsuccessful. 

They tested again and again, using more or fewer supplies, working to land their astronauts.

Kim Harding, a learning specialist at VAI, said the purpose of the experiment was to see which invention was the least expensive and most effective, while also hoping to spark students’ interest in STEM.

“STEM during this age is the best way to build a kid’s confidence. You present them with constant challenges and hopefully you can get them to a place where they can fail and get through that and keep pushing,” Harding said.

Learning specialist Kim Harding teaching in the Girls that Change the World summer camp

Breeze Hunt, a soon-to-be fifth-grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Spring Lake, said she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up. Her favorite person highlighted during camp was Alyssa Carson, a 23-year-old woman who has trained since age 5 to go to space. 

Breeze’s mother is a biology teacher and includes STEM in her classrooms, something that has exposed her to the concept at an earlier age as well.

Runi said she plans to be an architect and enjoys this type of learning.

“Just being able to figure it out with minimal things and making it work, it’s really fun,” she said.

VAI offers summer camps now through the end of August on different topics for varying age ranges. 

Students learn how to communicate with their peers, how to problem solve and how to be creative, Harding said.

“These camps are super-beneficial for students. During the summer months when they don’t have school, this is such a good opportunity for kids to be more curious. These camps allow students to get in a more open space, where their time is more flexible, they (think) go out of the box and not worry about a grade,” Harding said. 

And Runi mentioned: “Our brains don’t turn off during the summer; we still need to keep learning.”

Read more from Kent County: 
Fifth-graders’ knowledge takes flight with the butterflies
Library learning includes space, the eclipse and all things astronomical

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