University of Arizona UAN launch Camp BlastOff!

By Michael R. Nelson, Nina Martin, Jonathan Merritt, and James T. Hazzard, Ph.D., University of Arizona

This June, the University of Arizona’s UAN Chapter and the Biochemistry Club hosted its first highly successful multidisciplinary BlastOff! Summer Science Camp. An important goal of this camp was to provide fifteen Tucson


middle school students from historically under-represented ethnic groups, or students with limited exposure to science in their households, with the opportunity to engage in hands-on scientific experiments. The original idea for the camp was conceived by Mary-Helen Wanat (UA ’11) and Nina Martin (UA ’12), both Biochemistry majors.

Developed around the theme of outer space exploration, BlastOff! covered topics from the fields of physics, engineering, molecular biology, and biochemistry. Campers, who are mostly middle school students, participated in a wide variety of activities that challenged their problem solving abilities and their understanding of scientific topics. Camp activities included the chemistry of soil testing and water purification, the importance of light to life on Earth, identifying an organism using DNA fingerprinting techniques (students isolated their own DNA), and building their own solar powered vehicles and “rocket ships” using baking soda and vinegar. In addition to lab experiments, students also took field trips to the UA’s Flandrau Planetarium and the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. Professor Carol Dieckmann (Molecular and Cellular Biology) visited the camp to give a talk on the green alga Chlamydomonas and how it can control phototaxis by using its large eye spot and flagella.

On the closing morning of the camp, students engaged in a CSI-like investigation to identify the culprit who murdered a space alien by analyzing DNA samples on an agarose gel. In the afternoon, siblings, parents, and grand-parents were invited to watch a bottle rocket launching contest, a solar powered car race, a strongest spaghetti bridge contest, and to view the posters that each team of campers had worked on during their time at camp. The week closed with an award ceremony for all the campers.

For an overwhelming number of campers, the main vehicle by which they were taught science in classrooms was videos. Only two out of fifteen students had ever even taken a field trip. BlastOff! introduced many of them to hands-on science for the first time. Camper Madison Cruz-Lewis wrote, “My favorite activity was harvesting our own DNA…it was cool to see our DNA!!” Another camper Rashell Pedrego noted, “I really enjoyed making The Slime (a mix of borax, glue, water, and food coloring).” Vanessa Villalobos’ comments summarized all of the campers’ impressions about the camp, “I had a wonderful time at BlastOff. I learned a lot about science in a fun way…it was a great experience.” Her older sister Isela is already looking forward to the next camp, “BlastOff was an experience I will never forget. I met other kids my age and had great time conducting experiments and listening to presentations. I hope to come back next year as a Junior Leader.”

Vanessa and Neyda, Bottle Rocket winners

What began as an idea presented to the UA UAN Chapter and Biochemistry Club by Dr. Hazzard over two years ago, required the involvement of many talented, energetic, and dedicated individuals. The initial camp theme was developed by Wanat and Martin. Michael Nelson (see Enzymatic July 2011, p.2) and Jonathan Merritt (UA ’12) developed the activities and figured out the logistics of hosting the camp during the 2012 summer break. A large number of other UAN Chapter and Biochemistry Club members generously donated their talents serving as Team Leaders, and two high school students, Carissa Grijalva and Yurika Isoe (participants in a former UA science camp), joined BlastOff! as Peer Mentors.

Reflecting upon her prior experiences as a camper and her recent experiences as a Peer Mentor, Isoe told us, “BlastOff! was special to me because when I worked as a Mentor this summer interacting with the students, it was as though I was seeing myself from six years ago – curious, enchanted and ardent. In 2006, I was one of the students in the first year of InnoWorks (a pilot summer camp founded by former UA student Grace Hsieh). This was the catalyst for my continued interest in science. The advanced materials in InnoWorks challenged me to investigate. The hands-on activities brought science out of the classroom. The dedication of the UA students made them look like heroes through my young eyes. Now that I have served as a Mentor, I realize how much of an impact these programs have had on my education”.

Yurika and Diana with their solar car

BlastOff! was funded in part by the ASBMB UAN Outreach Support Award, funds from the UA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the College of Science, the Honor’s College, the Office of Vice President for Research, and personal contributions from Professors Marc Tischler (CBC), and James T. Hazzard. Lunches were donated by Tucson area restaurants and food chains.

Learning from this summer’s experience, we have already started developing a modified curriculum which will incorporate more field trips and a more biological theme to next year’s

camp. Despite the exhaustive work and long hours, a large number of UA students have already made commitments to work on the BlastOff! 2013. Both the middle school and undergraduate participants overwhelmingly felt that the camp was a great success and a lot of fun. And that is, after all, what science should be! 

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