A summer of stars: Pierce offers space camp virtually

Pierce College offers a virtual space camp during a pandemic.

The Science Dome planetarium of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom is offering its yearly summer space camp for grades 7-12 virtually this year, from July 27 through August 7. 

The Virtual Space Camp is already full with 65 campers and will be partly instructed synchronously via Zoom from 1-3 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“Overall, it’s such a great experience to get people interested in science and astronomy,” says Science Dome Director Hillary Stephens. “But another thing too is, especially now with the whole [COVID-19] thing where we can’t really be altogether in the same place, the camp also gives kids a chance to socialize and have a bit of an outlet for socializing and exploring.”

The Virtual Space Camp this year was supported by the Washington NASA Grant Consortium, a grant that gave all campers a free registration. Campers learn about topics ranging from the moon to distant galaxies, all while having yearlong access to an online, robotic telescope tool called Slooh. 

There are 10 Pierce College students who are involved with the camp as leaders and counselors, with the heavier academic instructions being offered by Stephens and additional faculty. For their training, camp leaders went through a condensed version of the course material, as well as the basics regarding how to operate telescopes and encourage the virtual involvement of campers. 

The campers are divided by grades into groups of six to seven kids, with each grade differing in terms of complexity. Each group will be assigned various quests to complete with their team throughout the two weeks, as well as have the opportunity to participate in camp-wide competitions. One such challenge involves learning about a place in the solar system and then creating a travel poster for it. 

Each day of camp relates to a certain theme, like a day focusing on stars and their life cycles or the different planets in the solar system. There’s also an initial, brief overview of astronomy and then a chance for campers to remotely take their own pictures with robotically controlled telescopes through the online service, Slooh. Campers learn how to not only control the telescopes but how to understand the astronomy that goes along with them.

Stephens explains that, through the camp, kids get a yearlong membership to Slooh.

“They’ll actually be part of a club, sort of, with everybody from the camp for a year,” says Stephens. “Even though the actual two-week camp won’t be going on that long, they’ll have access to everything for a year.”

Additional projects campers will be going through range from the chance to make their own sundials to becoming involved with Citizen Science opportunities. These opportunities are possible when astronomers upload their data online for citizens to access and offer input to help decipher information.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the students to get excited and get an opportunity to work with real data,” says Stephens. “We’ve had to completely rethink how to do stuff and it’s very different but it’ll still be lots of fun.”

Stephens includes that the goal of camp organizers isn’t to just have PowerPoint lectures, (though that’s certainly a component), but to provide campers with the basics needed to play around and learn through further interactions with their available tools.

While previous camps have been offered to a younger age range, the lack of face-to-face interaction this year made it too difficult to include grades lower than seven. 

“If we’re for some reason still virtual next year then maybe we’ll add in the younger kids but it’s a little too much to do all in one year,” explains Stephens.

Stephens adds that the Washington NASA Grant Consortium lasts four years and Pierce is hopeful to continue the camp until it runs out, with the possible rejoining of younger campers in the future. Though there’s a cost associated with utilizing Slooh, the grant covers it for the campers. It’s this cost in regards to the grant’s capabilities, however, that kept this year’s summer enrollment to a limited number of campers. 

The camp this year was designed with the flexibility to either be offered in-person or online, with as many hands-on opportunities as possible for both scenarios. For Stephens, one of the bigger challenges, when it became official that the camp had to be online, was simply looking for a reliable platform that would offer the same meaning and activity to campers virtually. 

She’s pleased with the tools Pierce is utilizing for its campers and is grateful for the social opportunity it will be providing all involved. 

Once the camp is over, the Science Dome is considering virtual field trips and more public related activities. Stephens explains that the first priorities remain supporting Pierce classes but that she’s hopeful the dome can begin live streaming public events once Pierce’s needs are under control.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

Kathryn Scott

A summer of stars: Pierce offers space camp virtually

by Kathryn Scott time to read: 3 min