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Santa Rosa students explore science and resilience at Space Camp

Each time that Piner High School science teacher Kurt Kruger made a new image of a planet or a constellation appear on the planetarium screen, an appreciative chorus rose from the group of Luther Burbank Elementary students gazing upward.

“Do you notice anything above you?” Kruger asked, nudging students’s eyes toward the arc of the Milky Way stretched over their heads.

Different cultures around the world have their own origin stories for the trail of stars and dust in the sky, he told them, and the group listened to a narrator tell one version of that story before the image on the screen zoomed off to a close-up of the surface of the moon.

The elementary students’ July 29 visit to Piner’s Science Position Astronomy Research Quest Center, or SPARQ, was the culminating experience of their two-week Space Camp, one of 10 Jump Start programs hosted by Santa Rosa City Schools this summer.

During the course of the camp, students from kindergarten age through fifth grade did everything from building balloon and paper rockets to learning about the phases of the moon and crafting structures that could keep an egg intact when dropped.

“I feel like this is the most powerful kind of teaching we can do,” said Mary Anna Maloney, one of the teachers who helped plan and lead the camp. “Hands on, minds on.”

New money from the state for expanded learning funded the Jump Start programs, including Space Camp. The experiences included activities to learn about science, technology, engineering and math concepts, as well as general school readiness principles.

Space Camp also wrapped in an exploration of social emotional learning. That’s where Lindsay Reichmuth, counselor at Luther Burbank, came in.

Heading into the summer, Reichmuth said she found herself thinking about interpersonal and individual skills that students had little chance to exercise over the past year of largely remote learning. While studying science and nature, she thought, students could also delve into communication, cooperation and resilience.

She designed the work around the space theme, pulling from NASA’s own “Expeditionary Skills for Life” curriculum. The topics ranged from teamwork and self-care to cultural competency and how to be an effective leader and follower.

Some of those concepts required translation to a level of complexity comprehensible to a student in kindergarten. But the activities that the kids participated in throughout the weeks also provided practical venues for them to apply what Reichmuth was teaching them in her 30- to 40-minute sessions.

Axel Martinez, a rising fifth-grader, said he saw the leader and follower dynamics Reichmuth talked about coming into play during their rocket-building exercise, for example.

“This camp is made for fun,” he said. “But you get to learn stuff, too. People come from different places and you have to work with each other.”

Students missed out on typical opportunities to exercise social emotional skills during the past year and a half of pandemic, Reichmuth said. But even before that, wildfires, evacuations and power shutoffs had already caused disruptions to these students’ school years. They deal with a lot of residual effects.

“A lot of time summer school is seen as a time to catch up on academics,” Reichmuth said. “But with the past few years we’ve had, catching up on social emotional learning or even just having that reminder throughout the summer can be really helpful.”

Martinez said he noticed the adjustment period he and his peers needed when they started the camp last week.

“It was kind of awkward talking to each other again,” he said.

“But we all had a lot to talk about,” responded Aizza Pedroza, his classmate. She has dreamed of becoming a doctor since she was in kindergarten, she said.

Her favorite activity from the two weeks in Space Camp was the time they worked to wire a small electrical system to keep a light bulb on.

The challenges of the activity made for the very thing that intrigued her so much, she said.

“I like how there were ups and downs to it,” Pedroza said.

Space Camp organizers such as Maloney and Reichmuth are already thinking ahead to next summer. It could be good for any student, they said.

Maloney was encouraged to see so many girls participate this year, she said, and the practice of new vocabulary can be an asset to students learning English.

“I think the kids that came were super lucky,” Maloney said. “Next year, more parents will want their kids to come.”

Emilio Tapia, a rising fifth-grader, offered a simple endorsement of the idea of putting on Space Camp again.

“Yeah,” he said, nodding hard.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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