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Little Shop of Physics—Colorado Middle Schoolers Learn Science Skills

Colorado middle schoolers attending the 2013 Native American STEM Institute got a taste of college and learned about renewable energy.
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The miniature student-made cars raced at a recent science camp might lose wheels or engine power, but they were nudged across a makeshift finish line with a little help from the students and their friends.

In some ways, a similar process applied to the students themselves. Despite fears and concerns, they learned they could overcome obstacles with a little help from their friends and mentors—in this case, at the 2013 Native American STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Institute, funded by the National Academy of Engineering.

The solar-powered race cars were only one project for the 30-plus middle school students from various tribes who came to Colorado State University in Fort Collins for the Institute (referred to as a “camp” by the attendees) June 23-29.

“It’s about giving students a college experience—being able to live awhile on the campus and be around a learning environment,” said Ty Smith, Diné, director of CSU’s Native Cultural Center. “It’s unique—the students have the opportunity to learn what is going on in the world of renewable energy.”

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For the attendees, it was all that and more. They did a rope-course and hiked, mapped a park at CSU, made a simple motor and used a wind turbine in the “Little Shop of Physics,” studied stream and plant ecology, learned compass skills and studied renewable energy and Geographic Information Systems.

They also did customary camp things—they frightened each other with ghost stories and had pillow fights. They sang and they weathered a thunderstorm that stripped leaves and limbs from trees. They formed teams and talked about their studies to the parents and grandparents who came for the closing ceremony.

Zenetta Zepeda, Sicangu Lakota, reported to the attendees that Rosebud Reservation has a 750 KW wind turbine that produces about 80 percent of the reservation’s new electricity. Kaya Francis, Lakota/Hopi, noted that the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is using solar power to help bring electricity to the 20,000 to 30,000 reservation homes without it.

The students prepared to leave, vowing to return in 2014 if possible. “They’ve had a great time,” said Rose Marie McGuire, head of the Denver Public Schools Indian Education Program.

At the end, Smith told the students he hoped they would continue their interest in science and said he also hoped he’d see them attending CSU but “another school would also be great.”