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Grand Forks students gain hands-on experience, learn about STEM careers at weeklong camp

With this year’s STEMKAMP theme, “New Frontiers in Space,” students focus on solving problems related to living on another planet

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Kadyn Balkowitsch (left) and Liam Zukowski learn about topography during a STEMKAMP session at South Middle School on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022 in Grand Forks. With the theme, "New Frontiers in Space," the camp gave third- through eighth-grade students the opportunity to explore STEM subjects.
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GRAND FORKS — Huddled around a table with three other boys in a classroom at South Middle School, Eli Dunn says learning about topography — and figuring out the best place to build a shelter on another planet == is what he’s enjoyed most, so far, about STEMKAMP.

During a session Tuesday, Aug. 16, students in the weeklong camp measured the heights of various features in a boxed landscape model and then determined the ideal location for a shelter.

“(Studying) the different elevations and how it affects how you’re living” has been the most fun, said Dunn, who’s heading into seventh grade at Twining Middle School at Grand Forks Air Force Base. “If you build (the shelter) too high, it’s too cold and you could freeze to death. Low (elevation) is probably better.”

The hands-on, immersive camp, which concludes with a parents’ day Friday, is aimed at stimulating students’ interest in STEM fields by increasing their understanding of related careers and developing their critical-thinking skills.

STEMKAMP, an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for Kids of Active Military Personnel, is focused on the theme “New Frontiers in Space.” The 125 participants are exploring what problems need to be overcome in order to inhabit a new planet, according to Shannon McWhorter STEMKAMP program director for Goshen Education Consulting, an Edwardsville, Illinois-based firm.


Investment in future success

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, visited the camp Tuesday and chatted with students, including Dunn and William Dickinson, a rising eighth-grader who is homeschooled.

The boys — whose fathers serve in the U.S. Air Force — designed a shelter on their topographical map that included living quarters, a medical facility and two separate research areas on different elevations, Dickinson said, “so we could research both the mountains and the forest.”

Programs like STEMKAMP, which is part of the Department of Defense’s National Defense Education program, “are an investment in the future success of not only students, but our economy as a whole,” Hoeven said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“Moreover, it will position these students to tackle critical challenges, from powering and feeding our nation to making advancements in health care, communications and countless other fields. That means a brighter and more prosperous future for North Dakota and our country.”

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Sen. John Hoeven listens as Evangeline Johnson Richards, left, and Tenleigh Thompson explain a topography project during a Stemkamp session at South Middle School Tuesday, August 16, 2022 in Grand Forks. The theme of the Stemkamp event is "New Frontiers in Space" and is for third through eighth grade students.<br/>
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Influence at a young age

The STEMKAMP students are heading into grades 3 through 8 this fall. Engaging them in STEM activities at this age can help nurture and build their interest in STEM careers which, it is hoped, encourages them to pursue a STEM career and, ultimately, enhance the nation’s STEM workforce, said Tom Withee, senior researcher with Goshen Education Consulting.

Studies have shown that, by the time students reach eighth grade, those who show an interest in a STEM are 67% more likely to pursue those subjects in college, Withee said.

During STEMKAMP, “we want to get them to start thinking about a STEM career,” he said, noting that students complete pre- and post-surveys which gauge how, or if, the experience changes their attitudes and mindsets about STEM disciplines.


One of 10 sites nationwide

In 2020, Grand Forks Public Schools was selected as one of 10 entities throughout the country to host STEMKAMP, funded with a $230,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, in each of the next three summers. The Grand Forks school system was chosen because of its association with Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Preference is given to children of active military personnel, but after those applicants were accepted, girls and then students of color — were prioritized for enrollment, said Taunya Schleicher, grant-writer for Grand Forks Public Schools and camp director.

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Tenleigh Thompson, left, and Oliver Hebert work on a project at Stemkamp Tuesday, August 16, 2022 at South Middle School.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Women and people of color have been largely underrepresented in, and historically excluded from, most STEM fields, according to the National Science Foundation and National Center for Engineering Statistics.

This summer, about 32% of the students involved in STEMKAMP are military-connected, Schleicher said.

“There has been such a high demand; parents were even asking last week (about enrolling their children),” she said. “Having to turn kids away is hard.”

School administrators are thinking about expanding enrollment next year, and possibly adding a second STEMKAMP, if another source of funding can be found, Schleicher said.

‘You’ve got to keep going’

In addition to a couple of Goshen consultants, local staff members include five teachers, four UND doctoral students in engineering, five lab assistants, and two peer mentors, Schleicher said.

On Tuesday, Randy Votava, physical education teacher and robotics coach at South Middle School, led a “Harnessing Wind Power” session in which students created small makeshift windmills and used blow-dryers to replicate wind.


“It’s cool to see them (get excited)” about the projects they’re presented with, Votava said. “You give them the parameters of the experiment and then they run with it.”

If they get frustrated with an idea for the project that doesn’t work out, he said, “we teach them that failure happens — that this is normal.

“You’ve got to keep going, one more time than you fail,” Votava said. “You learn how to overcome stuff when you fail.”

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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