Out of this World STEM Summer Camp Inspiring Navajo and Hopi Sixth and Seventh Graders Thanks to Grant from APS Foundation

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Since 1996, Lowell Observatory has brought STEM learning to the classroom through the Navajo-Hopi Astronomy Outreach program which pairs a Lowell astronomer with a school teacher on the Navajo or Hopi Nations for one school year. This summer, thanks to a $36,000 grant from the APS Foundation, Lowell is adding a new component to the program — a summer camp that is free to Kayenta Unified School District sixth and seventh graders.

Dr. Deidre Hunter, the Lowell Observatory astronomer who oversees the Navajo-Hopi Astronomy Outreach Program, says Lowell came up with the summer camp concept because they wanted to extend curriculum learning beyond the school year program and offer a more intensive program that would provide a deeper, richer experience to Navajo and Hopi students.

“The goal of the whole program is to help get kids excited about STEM and STEM careers. We are using everything we can think of to help get that interest going and sustain it,” she explains.

Thirteen sixth graders attended Lowell Navajo-Hopi Astronomy Outreach Summer Camp in late June, and fifteen seventh graders will arrive at Lowell on Sunday, July 22.

The week-long program includes teambuilding exercises, math and astronomy classes, a geological hike through Oak Creek Canyon, a tour of the NAU ICE Lab where ice compounds similar to those on Pluto are studied, a session with a Navajo collaborator who talks with the kids about Navajo constellations and stories, a Lowell Observatory tour, and a book club. Evening activities include a moonlight hike of Mars Hill, stargazing, bowling, and a Friday night campout.

Camp director Alethia Little, a Kayenta graduate and Navajo herself, designed and implemented the summer camp with the help of five other participants in the Lowell Navajo-Hopi Outreach program. When discussing the camp, her enthusiasm can’t be contained.

“You know how some people say they like their job but aren’t in love with it? I love my job. This is a passion for me. I understand what it’s like to grow up on the reservation. I see differences in city schools and reservation schools, which are in such an isolated area. Our camp has everything you would want such a program to have to benefit a community and to show them the opportunities for careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Little explains that when she surveyed the sixth graders at the beginning of camp and asked what careers they were interested in and how they would get there, most said teacher, police officer, firefighter, or other professions they encounter on a regular basis.

“I can honestly say not one said they wanted to be a surgeon, astronomer, physicist or chemist,” says Little.

However during the camp, she had a couple students who were so impressed by curriculum, activities, and the scientists they worked with, their ambitions shifted.

“In particular, after working with me, Dr. Hunter, and Lowell astronomer and camp counselor Alma Ruiz-Velasco, one of our campers said ‘Wow! Women are dominating the science world. I am going to be one of them!’”

The diverse Lowell Observatory Navajo Hopi Astronomy Summer Camp program is expected to continue and expand in the future, particularly as participants share their stories. Parents are already calling Lowell saying their kids are talking nonstop about their camp experiences, saying they didn’t want camp to end, and asking if the camp can be extended to eighth and ninth grade.

“This innovative camp is providing education and inspiration to Navajo and Hopi youth,” says Tina Marie Tentori, executive director of the APS Foundation. “From the feedback we’ve received, the program is sparking creative and critical thinking among the participants and helping them better prepare for a world where STEM-related jobs will dominate the employment sector.”

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