Adapting summer science camp during the pandemic

Two girls take water samples
Mackenzie Snovell (right) and a partner examine the water table and water quality parameters at a local muskeg as part of the 2020 Petersburg Summer Science Camp.

The current pandemic is impacting not only the country’s economy and healthcare industry, but also children’s social and educational opportunities. Recognizing this, Alaska Sea Grant’s Sunny Rice set out to adapt the Petersburg Summer Science Camp, using electronic communications in place of normal in-person gathering. Science kits were provided by the Petersburg Public Library for kids to use to conduct experiments and collect scientific data.

The annual week-long program, free to area middle school–aged kids, is a collaboration between the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center and Alaska Sea Grant. Traditionally, it is a fun, hands-on educational opportunity for kids, where they meet and interact with local scientists.

This year, campers met with a different researcher each morning by videoconference, and watched the scientist demonstrating data-collection techniques that the kids would use that day. Then they were off with their buddies—kids always worked in pairs for safety—to determine biodiversity in different intertidal zones, sample marine mammal populations in the local harbor, or analyze water quality in a local muskeg. Each afternoon, they met virtually again as a group with the researcher to share their data and discuss what it meant.

Addressing local needs

Part of Alaska Sea Grant’s work around the state involves identifying local community needs and priorities, and Alaska Sea Grant agents who live and work in the communities address those issues. That’s exactly what Rice, who is Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Program agent in Petersburg, did in helping to develop the first Petersburg Summer Science Camp three years ago.

Sunny Rice, with children and chaperones standing on dock
Petersburg Marine Advisory agent Sunny Rice.

Rice explained that for several years, the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center has been offering a competitive scholarship for local high school students who were interested in pursuing natural sciences, to support and encourage area youth to consider the sciences for study and possible future careers.

“Yet, many times it was offered, no one applied. We were surprised. And we’re thinking, maybe the kids just aren’t exposed to science as a career option. They might not know that they can live in Petersburg and have a science-related job.”

That’s when Rice and the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center crafted the idea of the science camp for middle school–aged kids, which Rice coordinates and serves as camp leader.

“Middle school is the age where you want to expose kids to career options. If they don’t see the job with their own eyes, if it never even crosses their minds, they’re probably not going to consider studying a science like biology as a main focus.”

Each summer, Rice recruits local scientists to lead camp sessions that introduce the kids to science concepts, and to perform simple experiments, take samples, make observations, and collect data to expose them to real-world science activities.

Promoting science literacy in Alaska

In addition to addressing a specific local issue—getting more Petersburg students interested in science and science careers—the camp aligns more broadly with another priority of Alaska Sea Grant, explained Alaska Sea Grant director Ginny Eckert.

Girl outdoors with science notebook
Mackenzie Snovell looks through her science notebook in preparation for the day’s field activities as part of the 2020 Petersburg Summer Science Camp.

“Sea Grant in Alaska and nationally is focused on increasing marine science literacy by providing learning opportunities for students. Maybe some of these campers will go on to careers in high-demand STEM fields, and hopefully all of them come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of science and the work of scientists in their communities.”

As Rice reflected on how, due to the pandemic conditions, she missed the in-person interactions between herself, the guest scientists, and the students, she also noted that the adjusted format spawned some new ideas that she may continue to use in the future.

“The past couple years we had the kids do a presentation for their parents, which is fun. But this year, to try to give the kids a chance to show off to their parents what they were learning, we made a scavenger hunt that a whole family could do together. Clues required the kids to understand and remember information that they had learned during the week. So they went with their parents, maybe also little brothers and sisters, to track down the items on their list given the clues provided. That was a really fun way to show off the stuff they learned and involve the whole family.”