Elon professor Terry Tomasek guides N.C. campers through science summer camp program

By Sarah Beth Costello

This article was published on the Elon University news Website: E-Net!: Click here

When it comes to science, Terry Tomasek, assistant professor of education,

Photo courtesy of Elon University Relations

believes students need to go beyond the classroom walls to truly experience and understand the subject.

Tomasek supports hands-on learning environments that enrich learning through experiments, observations and fieldwork.

Three years ago, Tomasek and two colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro launched the summer camp program Slip Slid’n Away (SSA) for high school students interested in herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles), ecology (the study of the relationships between different organisms), scientific fieldwork, research and nature.

“When I started teaching, I taught high school,” Tomasek says. “High school has always been a love of mine. [SSA] is a camp that focuses on environmental education, which is also something I love.”

On June 14, SSA welcomed 30 students from North Carolina high schools to the 2009 summer session. The weeklong summer program was held at the Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center in Efland, N.C. Campers spent five days conducting experiments, observing natural habitats and engaging in fieldwork with scientists, professors and UNCG doctoral students.

“The idea is to get kids to engage in scientific practices,” says Melony Allen, a doctoral student at UNCG who volunteers with SSA.

The SSA program differs from traditional camps in that students are required to attend six follow-up meetings throughout the school year. The camp encourages students to continue the pursuit of science by performing research, presenting information to fellow students and completing projects.

Campers spend mornings at various stations around the camp, attending a different session each day before returning to their favorite on the last day. The stations feature wildlife such as snakes, and box and aquatic turtles. Students collect snakes in the wild, then study them and document observations with the guidance of instructors. Students also hunt box turtles with help from Boykin Spaniels, dogs specially bred for the task. At the vernal pool station, students study temporary pools of water that provide breeding grounds for amphibians and reptiles. In another, experiment students set 10 traps around a lake at the retreat center to determine whether aquatic turtles preferred to eat sardines or chicken.

In the afternoons, campers participate in traditional camp activities, including riding the zip line, swimming in the pool, hiking, canoeing and relaxing.

Photo courtesy of Elon University Relations

Tomasek says the program has received interest from students nationwide, but only North Carolina high school residents are accepted.

“I’ve always been interested [in herpetology],” says Douglas Lawtan, a freshman from Randleman High School in Randolph County. “When I heard about this I was happy. I was pretty ready for it.”

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund provides funding for the program, and students

attend the camp free of charge and are each given stipends of $200 under the stipulation that they will attend the six meetings throughout the year. The fund expires this year, but Tomasek and her colleagues are actively searching for future funding and are hopeful that SSA will return in 2010.

“I look forward [to camp] every year,” Tomasek says. “I think it renews me. It renews my sense of what it means to teach young people.”

Says SSA volunteer and University of North Carolina at Pembroke professor Andy Ash, “It’s a worthwhile thing. I’d be tickled pink to come back.”

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