The challenge for the week sounded daunting to the two dozen 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds sitting before Rochelle Darville.
How would they create a working model of the human respiratory system? Most of them didn’t even know what the human respiratory system is.
“I am the engineer,” Darville said, standing in front of the class. “Say it.”
The students shouted the phrase back.
“You are the engineer,” Darville repeated. “You are going to fix the problem.”
Learning to be engineers is one aspect of Camp Quest, a summer camp in north Baton Rouge that seeks to expose elementary schoolchildren — especially African-American children — to science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM subjects. At this year’s session in mid-June, campers spent each morning working on projects and every afternoon taking field trips, spending one day at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In its second year, Camp Quest began as a collaboration between the Interdenominational Faith Assembly church and Solvay, a chemical corporation with a branch in Baton Rouge, said Judith Jackson, the camp coordinator.
Careers in the STEM fields are growing faster than others. However, in 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, only 5 percent of scientists and engineers actively working in science and engineering fields were African-American, according to the National Science Foundation.
“Many of these jobs are coming through,” Jackson said. “And African-Americans are less likely to go into STEM careers. Hopefully we can interest them.”
The first morning of camp, groups of students created posters that explained the meaning of the STEM acronym and why these areas of study matter.
“It is important because it is in our lives every day,” said Connor Stewart, an 11-year-old preparing to enter sixth grade at St. Jude the Apostle School.
Connor chose to start his summer at science camp because “it’s got to help me get ready for when I go into middle school.”
A week long, the camp only costs $25. Based at the Interdenominational Faith Assembly on Greenwell Street, the camp relies on volunteer educators — all certified teachers — and sponsorship support from Solvay. More than 50 children signed up this year.
“I like what they say, ‘To reach one, teach one,’” said Jackson, who teaches special education at Twin Oaks Elementary.
Over the last decade, the number of STEM jobs grew three times as fast as other careers, according to the U.S. Economics and Statistics Administration, and the sector’s growth is projected to be nearly twice that of other fields through 2018.
But teachers said that science gets little attention in the classroom compared with reading and math.
“Science kind of gets pushed to the side,” said Darville, who teaches science and social studies at St. John the Baptist School. “We are trying to show the kids that science can be fun.”
In the second half of the first day, Camp Quest brought staff from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center for a lesson on nutrition and physical fitness. Split into groups, the students divided laminated photographs of foods into the proper food groups.
Darrell Celestine, a 9-year-old attending Camp Quest for his second year, watched his group grab a pictures of apples and a cherry Danish. Darrell, who appears very mature for his age, wants to be a doctor when he grows up, so Camp Quest excites him.
“I want to be here because over time, over summer, a lot of kids lose knowledge,” Darrell said, “and learning STEM helps you keep knowledge.”
Holding a picture of fruity yogurt, 10-year-old Catrina Crawford said she hoped Camp Quest would get her ahead in school.
Catrina, who attends Baker Heights Elementary School, wants to be a forensic scientist or archaeologist. Science fascinates her.
“I think it’s all the chemicals and acids,” she said. “I think it’s fun to do the experiments and learn new things.”