Yelm students earn hands-on experience at STEMKAMP

125 students became “disaster masters” at Yelm Middle School


Ping-pong balls flew, shake tables simulating an earthquake rattled and joyous laughter bounced through the Yelm Middle School hallways during STEMKAMP’s “Family Day” Friday, Aug. 11.

More than 100 students earned the title of “disaster master” at STEMKAMP (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for Kids of Active Military Personnel) from Aug. 7-11. Students gained hands-on STEM experience and learned from professionals in the field at the camp, hosted by the STEMKAMP organization and Yelm Community Schools.

The theme of this year’s camp was “Disaster Masters.” In the first three days, students learned about natural disasters — specifically earthquakes, falling meteors and oil spills — and then put their knowledge to the test in a series of experiments pertaining to each of the three types of disasters.

Campers measured the magnitude of earthquakes using cardboard, plastic cups and shake tables. They learned how to clean oil from a body of water using a variety of solvents. Finally, they shot ping-pong balls at rotating cups hurtling toward a beach-ball shaped Earth, imitating redirecting meteors away from Earth.

“My favorite was the meteor strike activity because I got to make a slingshot, and the slingshot was really cool,” said one sixth-grader, Axel.

On the fourth day, one group of students visited Pierce College Science Dome and another visited Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. To cap off the camp, Yelm Middle School hosted “Family Day,” where campers showcased their experiments in front of their families, took part in challenges and learned from numerous speakers in the STEM workforce.

“For the students to have exposure to these STEM careers is very critical,” STEMKAMP Director Daniela Vinkova said. “It helps them be prepared for a bright future, whether they decide to go straight into the workforce or have some kind of college career.”

More than 20 community sponsors — most of which pertained to STEM related careers — set up displays in the cafeteria, and representatives spoke to students and their families. In addition, 10 guest speakers spoke to students about STEM careers in the region.

Washington Lt. Gov. Denny Heck and Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland also attended, speaking with community members and observing students’ experiments.

“These kids are receiving exactly the kind of both fun and stimulating, as well as educational, experience that is going to suit them very well to the world that they will enter as adults,” Heck said. “This is a spectacular program. The staff here is unbelievable, and the kids are clearly excited.”

The demand to participate in the camp was at an all-time high in the third year, as all 125 spots were filled, 95 of which came from military-connected families. Vinkova said the camp had a wait list of about 190 students.

A number of students returned to the camp after participating in the previous two, and some of the high school lab assistants and teachers returned to help, as well.

“The most rewarding part is when the kids come back and they know you and they’re so excited to see you,” student lab assistant Marissa Roberts said. “They bring their parents, and they’re like, ‘This is Ms. Marissa. She helped me learn this and that.’ They are just so excited to share what they did with their parents.”

Yelm is one of 10 military-connected districts nationwide that hosted STEMKAMP over the last three years. This is the third year of a three-year camp funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense in partnership with Goshen Education Consulting and iBIO.

For the camp to return and improve, Yelm Community Schools needs additional funding to help pay for the curriculum, training, labor, transportation, food and more.

“I would love to be able to expand it if possible, maybe offer more curriculum resources or project ideas,” said Lori Gray, the program coordinator for the Yelm Community Schools Office of Teaching and Learning. “It’s so rewarding to get to see the kids, and their families are so excited every year. The impact is getting larger.”

“We’re going to see if we can find some way to keep this going because it seems to be growing every year,” Yelm Community Schools Superintendent Chris Woods added. “It’s a great way to engage families and a great opportunity for learning.”