KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — At 12, Chance Ayers isn’t really into space programs or summer camp. But he still went to every session of a two-week long space camp at the Boys and Girls Club in his low-income neighborhood.
“My mom made me, basically,” he says. “She has to work, and she don’t get off work ‘til 5:00 pm. But I was okay with it because these people were nice enough to come volunteer. And I thought I would probably join in.”
Facility director Melvina Sexton says the kids might keep coming back for the fun and games, but, she says, “We might do math sheets and power pages – and it doesn’t seem like homework, but at the same time, we’re making sure that the kids are getting in the things that they need to.”
If that seems sneaky … you’re not far from the mark. There’s actually an educational term for it – it’s called “stealth learning.”
As Justin Bieber’s “Baby” plays over the loudspeakers, Britt Dyer welcomes kids to “the launchpad.” It’s actually a cleared-out space of carpet at the Boys and Girls Club.
Dyer is a program coordinator with Destination Imagination. DI, as it’s known, is a hands-on math and science program that has “stealth learning” down to … yeah … a science.
“Up next,” she announces, “your favorite doctor’s in the house … Doctor…Von…Webb!”
Dr. Von Webb is actually Adam Webb, a marketing student at the University of Tennessee. He’s playing the part of a “Russian Cosmonaut” to teach these kids basic science lessons. And that’s one way lessons are even stealthier with this group. Dyer says they’re trying to move out of their basic demographic - ”sort of middle to upper class white suburban group of kids,” she explains - to attract minorities, girls, and kids in low-income areas to science fields. Several different organizations got NASA funding to run camps like this throughout the Southeast. DI got a grant to run a camp in Knoxville combining their hands-on challenges with NASA curriculum. Students seem to engage well with this hands-on approach
“During the DI challenges you get to construct stuff, and in NASA, well, you get to construct stuff some more!” says summer student Daniel Combs.
“I learnt about space and planets and how astronauts eat the ice cream,” says Robert Huddleston. His review? “It was all crunchy.”
Lamar Farooq seems embarrassed to repeat what he learned: “I learnt that astronauts, well, this probably not, well, to get pure water, to get good water they use (filter) their urine and sweat and other things,” he explains.
Gross or not, it is science, and these kids are learning. But one expert who’s studied summer learning loss extensively says it may not be enough.
“Speaking hypothetically, we know that programs that are too brief are just not going to make enough of a difference over the long 12 to 14 weeks of summer recess,” says Ed Pauly.
Pauly is the Director of Research and Evaluation for the Wallace Foundation, a nonprofit that funds new education practices. He says there’s a place for short educational events as a part of a longer summer learning program. Britt Dyer agrees.
“In a perfect world, this program would never stop, we would be able to run it every day,” she says.
And at the end of two weeks, it’s difficult for her to tell these kids the program’s over.
“It breaks my heart and any time that any one of them asks, are you coming back, are you coming back, are you coming back, I want to tell them yes. Because they know that this is something different,” she says.
Dyer says the program isn’t just teaching science – it’s teaching lessons like teamwork and self-respect. And she says while she wants to spark an interest in science careers, she also hopes these students have also discovered new talents because that, she says, is a lesson that goes beyond a single summer.