November 2012

The kids agree: Camp BlastOff! was a blast

Rocket ship graphic

Over the summer, the University of Arizona’s Undergraduate Affiliate Network chapter and biochemistry club hosted their first multidisciplinary BlastOff! Summer Science Camp, which aimed to provide 15 Tucson middle-school students from historically underrepresented ethnic groups and students with limited exposure to science with the opportunity to engage in hands-on scientific experiments.

Developed around the theme of outer-space exploration, BlastOff! covered topics from the fields of physics, engineering, molecular biology and biochemistry. The activities challenged students’ problem-solving abilities and their understanding of scientific topics.

Photo of Team ACEISSO 
Team ACEISSO: (from left) Isela, Sarina, Carolina, Angelica (UA), Shiana (UA) and Eddie (UA).

The campers explored the chemistry of soil testing and water purification, learned about the importance of light for life on Earth, identified an organism using DNA-fingerprinting techniques (students isolated their own DNA), and built their own solar-powered vehicles and “rocket ships” with baking soda and vinegar. The students also took field trips to the university’s Flandrau Planetarium and the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which was about to begin casting the Giant Magellan Telescope mirror for use at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Meanwhile, Carol Dieckmann, a professor in the molecular and cellular biology department, gave a highly entertaining and educational presentation about the green alga Chlamydomonas and how it controls phototaxis by using its large eye spot and flagella.

On the closing morning of the camp, students engaged in a “CSI”-like investigation attempting to identify who murdered a space alien by analyzing DNA samples on an agarose gel. In the afternoon, siblings, parents and other family members watched a bottle-rocket launching contest, a solar-powered car race and a strongest-spaghetti-bridge contest and viewed posters made by the camp teams. The week closed with an award ceremony in which all the campers were declared winners.

Photo of bottle rocket contest winners Vanessa and Neyda from Team Marvelous Martians 
Team Marvelous Martians: Bottle rocket contest winners Vanessa, left, and Neyda

During the course of the camp, several of us asked the participants about how science is taught in their schools. Sadly, an overwhelming number said they learned science by watching videos in the classroom; only two out of the 15 said they had ever taken field trips! Therefore, it was very rewarding to read the campers’ (sometimes humorous) comments about the camp.

  • • Madison Cruz–Lewis wrote: “My favorite activity was harvesting our own DNA. This activity was kind of disgusting because we had to put saltwater in our mouths, but in the end it was cool to see our DNA!!”
  • • Rashell Pedrego noted: “I really enjoyed making The Slime [a mixture of borax, glue, water and food coloring]. It was cool how Yurika and I made seven times the amount of Slime than anyone else.”
  • • Vanessa Villalobos’ comments well summarized all the campers’ impressions: “I had a wonderful time at BlastOff … I learned a lot about science in a fun way, like how to make a rocket and a solar-powered car. It was a great experience.”
  • • Villalobos’ older sister, Isela, looking to the future, said: “BlastOff was an experience I will never forget. I was able to meet other kids and have a great time conducting experiments and listening to presentations. I hope to come back next year as a Junior Leader.”


We were very fortunate to obtain substantial financial support from a variety of sources:
  • • For initial planning in the summer of 2011, we obtained an Outreach Support Award from the UAN.
  • • Last fall and winter, we obtained funds from various university departments, colleges, offices and faculty members, including Marc Tischler and James T. Hazzard, which went toward the purchase of materials, equipment, snacks and refreshments.
  • • Lunches were donated by Tucson-area eateries.

It was very gratifying that a large number of the UA students who served as team leaders said they were committed to working on the second BlastOff! camp next summer despite the great deal of time and energy required. We have begun developing a modified curriculum that will incorporate more field trips and perhaps a more biological theme. Both the middle-school and undergraduate participants overwhelmingly felt the camp was a great success and a lot of fun, and that is, after all, what science should be!

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