Veronica Mendoza held up a shard of glass, the fluorescent classroom light catching the glimmer of sugar crystals.
“See them sparkle?” said Mendoza, a middle school science teacher at Garland ISD, to a surrounding group of students. She held a tinfoil cookie sheet filled with several more similar shards. One girl snapped a photo on her phone.
The hot sugar water cooled into a thin layer of hardened candy. It was a classroom science experiment in glassmaking, swapping sugar for sand.
It’s one of several experiments performed by about 30 students at Harold W. Lang Senior Middle School in East Dallas as part of the new Imagine Science Dallas summer camp. The final session for the camp ends Aug. 14. A second camp was held nearly 10 miles south at E.B. Comstock Middle School in Pleasant Grove.
The program is one of three national pilots — others are in Omaha, Neb., and Orange County, Calif. — with a focus to engage minorities and low-income children ages 8 to 14 in science, technology, engineering and math education.
True, STEM classes are available at Dallas ISD, but Imagine Science’s focus is when school is out of session. Fewer opportunities for similar programs afterschool and during the summer in Pleasant Grove and surrounding neighborhoods made Dallas a likely contender to test-run the program.
“There’s a lot of potential in these groups that isn’t being realized,” said Paul Perry, a high school science teacher and the camp’s site director at Lang Middle School. Before his teaching career, he was a hazardous materials specialist.
“I’m not going to say it’s not stressed in schools, but I don’t think they get much of an opportunity outside of school. They don’t live in Southlake, Colleyville or North Dallas where parents are going to put them in science camp,” Perry said.
‘I know how tough it is’
Alex Taborga’s parents both work: Mom is an office manager at a Dallas ISD school, dad supervises janitorial work. He hitches a ride to and from camp with the parents of his 10-year-old cousin, Karina Chavez, who also attends Imagine Science and lives across the street.
A future career as a scientist? That’s undecided. Currently, he wants to be a police officer.
“But at the same time, I love science. That’s my best subject in school,” said Taborga, 13, an incoming eighth-grader who lives nearby Lang. Wearing a gray U.S. Marines Corps T-shirt, he stirred the hot water on a hot plate until the sugar dissolved. He adjusted his clear plastic goggles, watching the mixture turn a milky white.
He’s used to the stirring. Sometimes, at home, he cooks soup from paper packets — the ready-made kind where you just add water — for himself and his siblings. He and his 16-year-old brother watch their younger siblings — an 8-year-old boy and 2-year-old twins. Taborga stashes extra snacks from the camp such as Chex Mix and fat-free yogurt to bring home as treats for the twins, who are being potty trained.
He hopes the camp will give him a jump-start when school starts in the fall.
“I wanted to come learn new things,” he said.
Mendoza, curriculum instructor for Imagine Science Dallas, understands the challenges. She grew up in Pleasant Grove as one in a line of 12 brothers and sisters. Her father didn’t finish high school. Her mother left after first grade, learning basic handwriting and math.
She’s the only one of her siblings to graduate high school and college. And she was the only one among her sisters to make it through high school without a baby.
“I know how tough it is. I know the environment these kids are put into,” she said.
‘Changing the community’
The camp is funded by the coalition of four national organizations and their local branches: the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Girls Inc., the National 4-H Council and the YMCA of the USA. Besides the camp in Dallas, local branches of the national organizations have held pop-up science camps and activities on the weekends at Lakewood Branch Library. It’s part of a five-year plan to grow the program to other communities.
“America needs more scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. If we don’t get them exposed, get them interested in it, they’re not going to realize they have that ability, and they’re not going to pursue that as a career,” Perry said.
Attending some privately-run science camps can cost hundreds of dollars. The Imagine Science camp costs $10 — the price of a T-shirt. Breakfast and lunch are provided by Dallas ISD.
Students took field trips to the Dallas Arboretum and Botantical Garden, Perot Museum of Nature and Science and Frontiers of Flight Museum, among others.
Unbound from public school academic standards, there are no tests or leactures. Each day begins with a brief overview. Then students break into small groups and congregate around tables to test the experiment.
They learned about the chemistry behind food science and made ice cream in a bag.
In small groups, they studied life science. They ate salted vinegar crickets. They collected bugs such as bees and dragonflies in the grassy yard around the school. Taborga and others carefully pinned their collection of dead insects onto Styrofoam. Mendoza and Perry mimicked the activity from an estimated $400 week-long bug camp held elsewhere in the state.
“Bringing a positive program into a community like this, it’s awesome,” Mendoza said. “You change the kids; you start changing the community little by little.”
Neighborsgo reporter Nanette Light can be reached at 214-977-8039.
What: Imagine Science Dallas, one of three national pilots to engage students in STEM outside school. The initiative is spearheaded by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Dallas, Girls Inc. of Metropolitan Dallas, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension 4-H and YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas. As part of the program, there have been pop-up science camps, activities at local libraries and a science camp this summer.
Why: Expand STEM education outside school to students ages 8 to 14 in under-served neighborhoods, specifically Pleasant Grove and surrounding communities.
When: Summer Session Three runs weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. beginning Monday through Aug. 14
Where: E.B. Comstock Middle School, 7044 Hodde St., and Harold W. Lang Middle School, 1678 Chenault St. in Dallas
Email: Adriana Torres at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 469-260-9475