JEROME • Ana Alcocer held a magnet up to her skin as seven preschoolers sat in tiny chairs around a classroom table.
“Why doesn’t it stick to my hand?” she asked students at the North Side Head Start center in Jerome.
Preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, took a few guesses. Yesterday, they were learning about magnetic vs. non-magnetic objects. Alcocer asked them what magnets do.
“They stick to stuff,” one child answered.
“Why?” she asked. Another student responded, “It’s magic.”
Alcocer pulled out some small plastic bears and asked if they would stick to the magnet. Students tried it and learned they didn’t stick.
The activities were part of a three-day bilingual summer camp this week sponsored by the University of Idaho.
The goal: Spark young students’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Two four-hour camp sessions were Tuesday through yesterday, and 50 children from last year’s Head Start program in Jerome participated.
This week’s camp was part of the UI STEM Education Research Initiative, a five-year project funded by a $1.2 million Micron Foundation grant.
In Jerome, the Head Start center offered a math and science camp several years ago but hasn’t had the money to offer it again.
Teri Anderson, supervisor for the North Side Head Start center, said UI employees contacted her this winter about a summer STEM camp.
“We jumped at the chance to be able to do this,” she said.
During the school year, Head Start preschool teachers have to hit a lot of material with their students.
Anderson said it’s great to be able to focus on science-related topics this summer.
Preschoolers had fun this week, and the camp may spark an interest in science among some, she said.
Science-related topics are appropriate for preschools, as they’re “natural little explorers and adventurers,” she said. “I don’t think you can ever start too early.”
Alcocer, who teaches Spanish at UI, said most lessons during the camp focused on science and experimentation.
“The most important thing is that the kids really understand the concepts we’re trying to show,” she said.
Each day had a different theme. Tuesday, preschoolers learned about measurements. Next came a day focused on germs - teaching kids how to cover their sneezes and properly wash their hands.
“They started to understand why they get sick,” Alcocer said.
Thursday’s camp session focused on experiments, such as mixing colors in water and discovering which items sink or float.
Instructors drew circles on the sidewalk with chalk. Preschoolers each pulled a sponge out of a tub of water and rubbed it around on the ground.
The adults asked the students what was happening to the water. The topic of the lesson was evaporation.
UI research associate Susan Stauffer said the university’s STEM Education Research Initiative looks at the “complex factors that influence STEM interest.”
During the program’s first year, focus groups were formed in 12 randomly chosen cities, urban and rural, around the Gem State.
The second year brought random phone surveys of adults around the state. And during the third year, surveys were completed by fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders, their parents and teachers.
In Jerome County, 71 percent of parents surveyed said they felt their math and science abilities would make it difficult to help their children with homework. “Parents feel they are limited with math and science knowledge,” Stauffer said.
The program’s fourth year will focus on innovation.
Researchers have applied for seed grants, so programs are happening this summer in Jerome, Lewiston and Post Falls.
As for Jerome’s STEM summer camp, Stauffer said she hopes it will continue for years to come.