Discussing NOAA Science Camp

In the conversation below, JISAO scientists Nick Bond, Mick Spillane and Sonya Brown talk with Cara MariAnna (JISAO Diversity and Outreach coordinator) about NOAA Science Camp and the importance of science education. NOAA Science Camp was started in 2003. Its mission, as articulated in the 2005 Science Camp Final Report, is to “foster a sense of curiosity about, and understanding of, the research conducted by NOAA scientists, while providing an enjoyable learning environment for the campers.” All three JISAO scientists have participated in camp since it first began.

Mick teaching a young student
Mick Spillane

Cara: How do we promote interest about science among kids?

Nick:I think the main thing is to try and get them enthusiastic about science by showing that we are enthusiastic about it. If it looks like we’re enjoying ourselves and are fascinated by our work that’s going to show. The importance is to show the passion.

Sonya: We try to relate science to their lives. The more you can connect with things they are familiar with the more you can get across. We try to talk about things that are happening that they’ve heard about in the news. When we ask the kids questions we try to relate it to things they already know about.

Mick: The idea of a camp is that you go out and have fun. It’s not necessarily a classroom experience. At this age a lecture is not going to be productive. You first have to have fun and then you can learn. We’re trying to get the students enthusiastic with how much they actually learn.

Cara: What are the biggest misconceptions about science that you see?

Mick: I think it’s often that the students have not thought about [science]. They haven’t thought about what’s involved in learning about the world around us or what you need to do to gather data.

Cara: Well I think any misconceptions go back to the difference between what’s possible in a classroom and what’s possible when you get kids out in the environment.

Nick: Although in the [camp] station I was working at we made the kids do a simple calculation of the sort you would do in a classroom but using the numbers we collected right there at the TAO buoy.

Sonya: At camp the situation is real. It isn’t just something the kids are trying to do that comes out of a text book or calculations that are dry and sort of separate from real-life. The students are actually seeing how things are measured.

Nick: They actually have to look at the numbers that are being produced [by the instruments on the TAO buoy] and put them together. They had to refer to a table and put information together. Some thought had to go into it.

Sonya: And you related the exercise to something they know about in real life, how much wattage would be output by a desk lamp. That comparison enabled the students to visualize how much heat was coming out of the water. Also they had the background of knowing that these are real buoys that real scientists are using. You can’t get that in a classroom.

Nick: I would like to emphasize that there is not much romance to most of our work. It looks kind of dull. You are sitting at your desk doing calculations or writing up descriptions of what you have done. So there is 90% analysis and 10% discovery.

Mick: In my science camp activity, students tow a net through the water and gather some phytoplankton or zooplankton and then we look at a picture showing how tiny they actually are. Then I have a satellite image of the Bering Sea where you see a huge patch of discoloration of the water. It’s important for someone to know how many of these tiny little bugs are making that huge patch [of discoloration] because that’s the bottom of the food chain and everything depends upon that, including the fish we eat here in Seattle. Most of the fish come from the top of that food chain and it is somebody’s job to figure out esoteric things like “is this a good year” in terms of the amount of food that is out there.

Cara: How do the kids respond to Science Camp? Do you see those “ah ha” moments when they are making connections?

Nick: I would say roughly one third of the students are incredibly sharp and pick up on everything and another third are more or less disengaged, and that’s okay for whatever reason. The middle third is the challenge. The challenge is to get those kids. If you do it right you probably can get them much of the time. But if it is boring or just seems not relevant then you are going to lose them and that is who we are trying to get. The best kids are as insightful and as knowledgeable as most adults. There are sometimes incredible realizations of what’s going on at a very young age. If we could somehow tap into that, that is what we are trying to do in a little way.

Mick: Maybe they are already tapped in and their track in life is already evident and we can foster that by camp and show them where they are heading.

Cara: Does Science Camp inspire your own work?

Nick: I’ve heard it said that we don’t really understand anything until we can explain it to an 8th grader. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s something to that distillation process that’s necessary to do in camp here that can help us clear our own thinking. For the most part it is fun to see these kids who really have it and to see them in action is cool.