On the Cover

It’s a Wonder-Filled World

College of Education’s camp piques young students’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math

Dr. Ronnie Priefer stood at the front of a small lecture hall in DePaul Hall at the midpoint of his discussion of electricity. His presentation, thus far, had caused a considerable amount of anxiety in his young volunteer, a boy of about 7 or 8 who stood at the corner of the lecture platform holding a fluorescent light tube that was nearly as long as he was tall. Priefer had just demonstrated how electricity from a Tesla coil could be transferred to his hand, and now he removed the glass globe from the coil, which buzzed and glowed like a bug zapper. Curling his hand around the exposed coil wire, he said, “Okay, so, you saw what can happen, right? It was going through me, it was zapping me pretty good there.”

“I think it’s going to hurt Ray,” a child from the audience said.

Priefer pointed to his young volunteer. “What’s his name? Ray? Want to say goodbye to Ray?” he joked, smiling at the boy. Then he turned back to the audience. “Okay, so right now, I have all the voltage running through my body. Why am I not dead?”

“Oh, you’re going to touch this thing and it’s going to go through me,” Ray said, waving the light tube.

Priefer smiled and addressed the audience again. “First question is, why am I not dead? We know electricity can kill you.”

Ray put down the light tube and began backing away from the stage.

“This is what Nikola Tesla called alternating current,” Priefer continued. Then he noticed that Ray had inched his way back to the steps that led to his seat in the audience. “Come back,” he called to the boy, who reluctantly returned to the stage.

Priefer picked up a second fluorescent tube and turned back to the audience. “And this allows me to become electrified without being killed. Lights please,” Priefer said to his assistant. As the room darkened, the fluorescent tube in Priefer’s hand lit up. Priefer touched the tube Ray held with his, and Ray’s tube lit up.

“Okay, you can come closer now,” Priefer told him.

The two held up the tubes like light sabers in a “Star Wars” movie.

From the darkness, a very relieved Ray said, “It doesn’t hurt,” and the audience began to laugh.

Priefer’s chemistry magic show is a highlight of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) camp that the College of Education has hosted for the past two years. Funded through a Mathematics and Science Partnership grant from the New York State Education Department, the camp’s activities are designed to engage students from grades three to eight through inquiry-based teaching and learning while incorporating literacy comprehension.

This year’s topics included the chemistry of art, wildlife biology, solar inventions, and amusement park design.

“We host the camps because we feel it is really important to have children get the feel of a college campus at a young age,” said Patricia Wrobel, assistant dean for external relations in the college. “It involves so many stakeholders that benefit from this, such as NU graduate students and faculty, in-service teachers, graduate assistants, educational leadership interns, and parents.”

Priefer, an associate professor of chemistry at Niagara, appreciates the opportunity the camp affords him to share his passion for a subject that many consider to be for “nerds,” he said. “Chemistry has a very bad reputation. In other parts of the world, chemists are looked at in a more positive light, similar to a dentist or medical doctor. What I am hoping is that by doing shows like this, which entertain and educate, a few students will get that spark which will excite them to consider chemistry as a career path.”

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Adam looked down at the ground near his feet and noticed a bright yellow flower amid the green of the grass. “Isn’t a dandelion a weed?” he asked Ben, his nature walk leader.

“Do you know what the definition of a weed is?” Ben replied. “Something growing where it’s not wanted. So you can take a rosebush, which is normally a beautiful thing, and if it’s growing somewhere you don’t want it, it’s a weed. It’s all perspective.”

The two joined the rest of their group, 11 boys and two girls in sixth through eighth grade, and continued their search for plants, insects, birds, and mammals on the Niagara University campus. It was a sunny morning, and the young campers filled their nature journals with leaves, berries, cicada shells, and flower petals. When their walk was over, they would take what they found back to their classroom, find five facts about each using SMART boards and iPads, and complete their nature journals.

Ben Ladik, a history teacher in the North Tonawanda school district, taught this session on wildlife biology with fellow graduate students Christina Marino and Emily Crissman. As part of their course work in the College of Education’s graduate program in literacy, they developed lesson plans and activities that would be age appropriate for the campers.

“It’s been interesting to see how much difference even a year makes in interest levels,” said Crissman, a special education teacher in the Lockport school district, who noted that one of the things she valued most about the experience was the interest on the part of the students. “These kids want to be here and excel — they test your knowledge.”

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It’s the afternoon of the last day of STEM camp. The campers have learned things like how to transform a Pringles can into a solar oven that could roast a hot dog, how to design windmill blades to produce wind energy, and the relationship between chemistry and art using color wheels and homemade paint. Now, they listened as Joanna Bolender, a gregarious woman with long brown hair and an expressive face, explained what might be found in a wildlife habitat. The children would be creating their own habitats using shoeboxes and art supplies, so it was important to know what to put in them.

The children shouted out things like food, water and shelter, and Bolender moved around the room, high-fiving campers who gave good answers to the questions she asked. As she continued the discussion, she often broke into song and dance. A veteran educator who has taught sixth grade for 17 years in the Niagara Falls school district, and at Niagara’s STEM camp for two, she quickly established a rapport with her students, engaging them in conversation about music, hobbies, and family. As she worked with the young campers, she, herself, learned things that she will bring back to her classroom, one of the benefits for teachers in the STEM program.

“Elementary teachers before this initiative rarely incorporated science into the daily curriculum,” Wrobel said. “This program helps them to develop the confidence and interest to build math, science, and technology into their curriculums.”

It also enables them to show the children that STEM can be enjoyable. “It’s not always about opening the book and reading and writing,” Bolender said. “It’s about hands-on activities. They learn by doing and have fun — that’s the important part.”

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At 4 p.m., campers, instructors, College of Education faculty members, and parents gathered outside Niagara University’s Academic Complex to review the week’s activities, thank the participants, and distribute certificates of completion. It’s been a demanding, but rewarding, four days for Melissa Bonar, a graduate assistant who served as coordinator of the camp. For the past several weeks, she had met with Wrobel, College of Education faculty members, and camp teachers to determine topics, activities, and logistics. During the camp, she had been the “go-to” girl, ensuring everyone had what they needed, were where they were supposed to be, and were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Now, as she stood watching the campers share what they had learned with those in attendance, she was proud of the wonderful learning experience that she had been a part of.

“The camp was a huge success. It was great seeing how excited the campers got about learning — learning that they probably didn’t even realize was taking place because it was innovative, hands-on, and fun,” Bonar said. “I hope that the campers realize how important literacy and STEM are and how it is all around them, and that they continue to pursue such endeavors in the future.”