Rural Summer Science Camp goes digital

Now in its 14th year, the Rural Summer Science Camp is celebrating a new milestone: an entirely digital experience.

The Rural Summer Science Camp, which typically enrolls 75 high school students and fifteen science teachers from rural districts across Wisconsin, invites participants to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for a weeklong camp at the Morgridge Institute for Research. 

But the novel coronavirus presented a significant hurdle for Discovery Outreach team who plans the annual camps—how do you bring science to rural students during a pandemic?

The team pivoted—quickly—to create an entirely new, fresh digital experience in the Summer Science Camp Workshop Series. 

“To be able to give a fun experience to students right now is important,” says Dan Murphy, senior lab and outreach coordinator at the Morgridge Institute. 

Dan Murphy

Starting June 24, 105 high school students and 21 teachers will participate in the workshop, significantly increasing participation and access to the program. Students hail from 18 different school districts in the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance and the Upward Bound program that focuses on underrepresented and first-generation pre-college students. 

Over the summer, students will participate in weekly Zoom sessions where they’ll learn directly from a top Morgridge Institute scientist. Students select a morning or afternoon workshop that best suits their summer employment schedule or other activities.

“Seeing students interact with scientists—that’s always the best part,” Murphy says. “We’ve been working to bring the fun parts of the camp into this virtual space. This is fun. It’s exciting.”

Hands-on science is a signature experience at the camp, and the Outreach Team feels it is critical in inspiring students to explore future careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. During the workshop, students will learn and conduct experiments and activities—all from home—on topics such as stem cell science, medical engineering, microscopy, cancer, and more.

New this year, students will also engage with science activities outside the typical lab bench including science writing and policy, says Wes Marner, program and lab manager at the Morgridge Institute.

With so much youth programming shuttered statewide, Marner says the team was particularly motivated to find a way to connect with high school students and their teachers to stay relevant and engaged.

“We’ve got amazing research content and researchers. We’ve got professionals who know how to make this into an engagement program. That’s the secret sauce,” Marner says. “And now that venue has changed for us, we are rising to the challenge to innovate in this space.”

The workshop has also increased scientist participation. All six research themes at the Morgridge Institute have an experiment or experience for students and teachers this summer.

Anjalie Schlaeppi, a doctoral student, and Joe Li, a software engineer—both in the Huisken Lab in medical engineering—will lead a workshop activity called “I Heart Microscopy,” that explores how medical engineers study the hearts growing in zebrafish embryos using light sheet microscopy. 

“We’re most excited to show students our work, and make other people as excited about our science than we are,” Schlaeppi says. “We’re hoping to see curious students willing to learn more about how fundamental science is done on a practical level and how scientists do their jobs.”

Lori Martin, a science teacher at Kickapoo High School located just outside the Village of Viola, attended the camp in 2014 with five students. She says the experience propelled her students’ interest in the sciences and helped them understand possible careers—and the ways to get there.

This month, Martin is returning for the workshop and is excited to learn alongside her students, albeit this time from home.

“I look forward to the online creativity … I know it will be meaningful for myself and my students,” she says. And while a trip to Madison will be missed this summer, Martin raves that she “can’t say enough about the program!”  

For Martin’s part, she’s excited to see what she can bring back to Kickapoo. During the 2014 camp, she was wowed by her students’ final poster presentations held on the last day. Martin was so impressed that she incorporated more opportunities for mini-posters or project presentations in her science courses.

“I felt this was my way of implementing some of the summer science camp activities in my own classroom,” Martin adds.

That sentiment was also felt by Molly Carlson, a science teacher at Mauston High School, who attended the 2019 camp with six female students. Mauston enrolls just under 500 high school students, with about 40 percent of the families experiencing economic hardship. 

Prior to attending the camp, Carlson had newly created a biotechnology class at Mauston. But she wondered, and worried, if the course was the right fit.  

“I didn’t know if there was going to be enough interest,” Carlson says of the biotechnology class. “I didn’t know if it was suited for our students … but after going through the camp, I was like, ‘I need to double down. This is great, authentic, important science.’”

The hands-on camp reinforced to Carlson the critical nature of learning novel science techniques, providing students with opportunities to understand health, and giving them a hands-on exploration of different science careers.

“The researchers and program presenters were from a variety of different backgrounds, and there were a lot of women scientists that the girls got to meet,” Carlson says of her students in 2019. “That is super important to help the students visualize themselves and to say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

Schools participating this year include:

  • Baraboo High School
  • Blair-Taylor Middle-High school
  • Clinton High School
  • Forward Service Corporation – Upward Bound (7 program sites)
  • Ithaca School District
  • Kickapoo School
  • Mauston High School
  • Montello Jr/Sr High
  • Prentice High School
  • Southern Door High School
  • Tomah High School
  • Waupaca Learning Center

Since 2007, the camps have helped more than 400 rural high school students from nearly 70 state high schools. Since its inception, the camp has been offered free of charge thanks to the support of private donors and sponsors, including the Wisconsin Rural Opportunities Foundation, BioForward, the Kathy Smith Fund, and the Melita Grunow Fund.