Aerial view of the Dowagiac campus

Popular SMC STEM camps conclude

08/09/2019 - 9am
Students learn to code

Southwestern Michigan College’s Aug. 6-8 STEM camps consisted of four workshops — one per letter for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — for 240 fourth, fifth and sixth graders. Students converged on the Dowagiac campus from throughout the region, including Three Rivers, Decatur, Lawrence, St. Joseph, Three Oaks, Benton Harbor, Stevensville, Mattawan, Hartford, Vicksburg, Paw Paw, Mendon, and Osceola, Goshen, Granger and Elkhart, Ind., for the third annual camp.

Bosch Community Fund awarded a grant so students can enjoy the program for free.

Students played fraction bingo, then completed a relay solving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division arithmetic problems at each corner of the William P.D. O’Leary Building; designed and built freestanding towers strong enough to support a tennis ball as high as possible off the table while withstanding a fan stand-in for hurricane-force winds; conducted scientific experiments in the chemistry laboratory; and used laptops to learn coding, the programming language which tells a computer what to do. Code exists not just in computers, but all manner of electronics, from refrigerators and stoves to phones, video-game consoles and televisions.

Materials available for tower construction included index cards, straws, craft sticks, chenille stems (pipe cleaners), masking tape and string.

“Engineers are professional problem-solvers,” SMC physics and mathematics instructor Andrew Dohm said. “They might need to use things that exist in new ways or create new technologies. Your design constraint is you have this tub of building materials and a time limit. Scientists figure out how and why things work to create new knowledge engineers use. Both use technology as tools, with math the common thread tying both together. When I teach math I talk about it as a universal language.”

For inspiration, he showed famous structures, from France’s Eiffel Tower to London’s “The Gherkin,” a financial-district skyscraper opened in April 2004. Open shafts between each floor of the cucumber-shaped structure require no energy for ventilation.

“Creativity is a key component to problem-solving,” Dohm said. “That’s why we work in teams. Each of you brings a different perspective to this challenge.”

Girls represented 37 percent of participants

Nichole Dohm, Andrew’s wife, teaches at Edwardsburg Middle School. She led experiments, testing the hypothesis that a Mentos mint dropped in a room-temperature Pepsi would blow up a balloon faster than Nerds or Sweet Tarts.

“Our hypothesis was wrong, which is definitely okay,” she said, “because it will make us do more experiments. We could experiment with cold Pepsi, warmed Pepsi or a different kind of pop, like Coke or Sprite.”

Clues a chemical reaction occurred are a change in color, bubbling, odor (rotting eggs smell like sulfur) or formation of a precipitate (chunky spoiled milk). Other examples she gave were patina, the green film on the surface of a copper penny oxidation produces over time, or rust on a bike left in the rain.

Students mix corn, baking soda and vinegar in beakers. Not only does it fizz, kernels dance to the surface, then tumble back below. “Carbon dioxide bubbles attach to the corn kernels and pop once they float to the top,” she said.

Two-member teams made “lava lamps” with vegetable oil, water and food coloring. “When you have oil spills, they can be cleaned up because oil doesn’t want to mix into the ocean, it wants to float on top,” Mrs. Dohm said. Watery drops of food coloring sink through the less-dense oil layer. Alka-Seltzer tablets roil the liquid into colorful churning columns.

Their son, Andrew Dohm, an Edwardsburg High School freshman, assisted Eagle Lake teacher Deb Kraska with coding, drawing on five years of robotics experience. Kraska has a master’s degree in educational technology and owns her own business. Her son, John, who also helped, has been competing in robotics for three years.

May SMC graduate Abigail Craft of Niles, transferring to Western Michigan University, facilitated the math session after volunteering as a counselor last summer. In April she received the Darrin Williams Memorial Scholarship, the highest award SMC’s Math/Science Department bestows.