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Campers learn science can be fun

Enveloped in a white cloud rising from the 5-gallon orange bucket, three young men took turns stirring the bucket's contents as if their lives depended on it as more liquid nitrogen was added to the mix. 

About 15 minutes later, the stirring efforts by Sean Reyes, Jacob Slavik and Brandon Schmidt and the judicious addition of liquid nitrogen by chemistry professor Ann Nalley produced creamy, delicious vanilla ice cream for 24 campers, a handful of camp counselors and Nalley during the 2017 Nano Explorers Science Academy at Cameron University.

The students had just finished listening to and questioning Rob Mueller about how dentistry requires a knowledge of chemistry on Wednesday evening when the ice cream experiment began.

The two-week summer academy, which was started by Nalley in 1995, is packed full of hands-on experiments and activities from morning to evening. On Wednesday, the ninth- through 12th-grade students who live on campus during the week attended an "Application of Robotics in Forensics" class and a "Solar Cells and Polymer" class. In the morning, half of the students used the robots they constructed earlier in the week for the robotics class, while the other half made a solar cell out of titanium dioxide and then baked it in a 550 degree Celsius kiln. The groups switched classes for the afternoon sessions. 

The academy's goals are "to interest the students in aspects of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education," Nalley said, explaining that the academy is primarily focused on chemistry and physics, but it also is offering other disciplines like engineering, wildlife biology, DNA and forensics. 

"What we are trying to do is give them a taste of lots of other career options," she said.

Whole technologies have been developed around the study of nanoparticles because researchers found that "really small particles act differently than big particles," Nalley said, adding that making ice cream with liquid nitrogen involves getting down to really small particles that allow the ice cream to freeze in about 15 minutes. "We put liquid nitrogen into the mixture and it makes ice cream. You can make dipping dots by spraying the mixture into liquid nitrogen."

Attendees this year were selected from Lawton, Cache, Newcastle, Muskogee, Bethel, Cherokee, Bartlesville, Union, Noble, Choctaw, Tishomingo, Elgin and Tulsa. 

"I wanted to come and my mother called Dr. Nalley, who told her more about it," Terrell said. Excited about the academy, she told her friends Haylee Smith and Tiffany Morrison and all three were at the academy

Each year, there are always more applicants than there are spaces. The academy is free to those selected, except for the cost of their travel to and from their homes at the beginning, during the only weekend and at the end of the academy. 

Nano Explorers is just one of many summer science and math academies that Cameron offers. The Trent Patton Endowed Lectureship in Science Adventures, established by Trent Patton's parents in April 2003 and other grants helps keep the summer science programs going, Nalley said. 

Learning science is fun

"My major goal is to make them think that science is fun and make them think learning chemistry and physics is fun," Nalley said. 

The consensus of the students Wednesday night is that the academy is definitely fun. 

"This is more fun and exciting because we get to do hands-on projects," Terrell said, explaining that she made lye soap in a microwave from lard, denatured alcohol, food coloring and essential oils and has been able to draw "stained glass" designs with chemicals.

Denario Shoates, a senior at Muskogee High School who plans to go into music, said one of the most fun parts of the academy was been listening to Nalley's stories. 

"I'm just curious about the different ranges of study offered here. The robotics is pretty new to me," he said.

Jayke Flaggert from Choctaw, who plans to be a pediatric neuro-oncologist, said the hands-on aspect of this program is great, but having no pressure to succeed helps make the program more interesting too. 

"At school they make you learn. Here, it is our choice. ... Nobody is forcing us to do it and make certain grades."

The program is so interesting to the students that the learning sometimes extends well into the wee hours of the morning.

"When we get together (at the end of the day), we stay up until 4 in the morning to talk about what we learned today  we have real interesting conversations," Flaggert said to the affirmative nods from other students. 

Future scientists

About two-thirds of the students and camp counselors present on ice cream night indicated they were planning to pursue careers in the sciences. 

Attending the academy "makes me even more interested in being a pediatrician or a veterinarian," Terrell said. 

It isn't unusual for siblings to show up at the academy one after another and go on to attend Cameron and go into the science. 

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