Academy Camps Introduce Middle School Students To STEM Fields

August 2, 2018
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By Jenna Moldaver | 

Campers at Biotech Boot Camp in Freehold interpret the results of their labs with the guidance
of high school counselors in a biotechnology lab. Photo by Jenna Moldaver

As the school year ends, young students look forward to the summer months ahead that promise to hold endless sunshine and time with friends. For many of these students, summertime marks the end of school days and the start of camp days filled with waterslides, ice cream, sports and outdoor games. In many local schools, however, camp has taken on a new meaning. At Biotechnology High School (BTHS), camp isn’t water gun fights and face painting; it’s gel electrophoresis and DNA fingerprinting.

Biotech Boot Camp began 10 years ago, not long after the founding of BTHS, as a way to expose middle school students to the types of research done at the life sciences-oriented county vocational school. Since it began, the camp has been run by Danielle Jensen, who teaches IB Biology at Biotech. (IB programs – International Baccalaureate – allow students to take college-level courses while in high school.) The counselors are primarily rising juniors at the school.

Tiffany Paul, a former Boot Camp counselor and current student at the University of Pennsylvania, reflects on her time at camp as a great opportunity for both BTHS students and middle school campers.

“As a counselor, the best part of boot camp was being able to apply the lab skills that I learned the previous year and to share those skills with aspiring middle school scientists,” she said. “It was super flexible on both sides. Everyone basically learned and taught as much as they wanted.”

The program hones the skills of both current students and campers. “The students will give a presentation, and then we’ll do a lab after,” Jensen explains.

Essentially, counselors will present the basic premises of a procedure, including the techniques and applications, before students will conduct the experiments themselves. Labs include DNA extraction, bacterial transformation and gel electrophoresis. Campers also learned about topics in genetics and about viral structure and infection.

Campers acquire skills such as micropipetting, which are used nearly every day at Biotechnology High School. For many campers, Biotech Boot Camp offers the opportunity to determine whether the high school might be a good fit for them in the future.

The materials of gel electrophoresis, a process used to separate and analyze samples based on their size and charge. The boot camp introduces middle school students to the types of research conducted at the Monmouth County Vocational School’s Biotechnology High School. Photo by Jenna Moldaver

“I’d never been to Biotech before this, and I might want to go here for high school,” one camper said.

The camp, made up of approximately 15 students each week for three weeks in July, is held in one of the school’s main laboratories.

Biotech isn’t the only local school opening its doors to curious young minds. High Technology High School in Lincroft offers a total of nine camps throughout the summer. Middle school students can still register for a variety of courses, including car engineering design, programming robotics, digital circuit technologies and programming.

In High Tech’s digital circuit technologies camp, which runs from Aug. 6 to Aug. 10, students learn to build digital electronics, combining electrical engineering principles and equipment design. The robotics course gives students the opportunity to design and build circuits to produce sound, light and motor movement, ending in a design challenge. The camps vary in price, dates and times.

One day in the not-too-distant future, these campers may become researchers, holding the very same micropipette in the very same lab where they first discovered their passions and interests. Their journey to a career in STEM could begin in the very place where they will go on to receive their education. Or, alternatively, they hang up their lab coats and toss their gloves once and for all after testing the waters in a weeklong trial run of life as a scientist.

Either way, they go home with skills well beyond their years and a brief glimpse into what may, or may not, lie ahead.

This article was first published in the July 26-Aug. 2, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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