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We have finished the first week of camp! I’m spending the weekend catching up on sleep and running through how the first few days went so I can prepare for next week. Overall, the start of camp was both really fun and really exhausting. I learned quite a few things that I want to keep in mind for the remaining weeks.

Our days at Eureka always start with the three-hour STEM lesson, which the Duke cohort leads. Everyone is assigned to a different lesson plan. My lesson this week was an engineering challenge called “Circle of Pong.” The point of it was for the girls to use limited materials to construct a device that would deposit a ping-pong ball into a cup in the middle of a circle that they could not step into, and to learn about the engineering design process along the way. For me, the challenge was to manage my classroom.

I had the 7th graders for the first two days. We had a few hiccups – the materials assigned in the lesson plan were not nearly enough for the girls to build their devices, and the ideas the girls came up with were very different from the solution provided during training for this lesson. The first thing I learned was that I should definitely not give the girls any hints on how to design their device, because they finish way too quickly otherwise. Every group that week solved the challenge without help, anyways. The intern I was co-facilitating with and I quickly had to come up with more and more variations on the challenge to keep the girls busy for the rest of the three-hour period.

The second thing I learned is that middle schoolers care about fairness more than anything (unless they are the ones getting something extra – they don’t mind that). We devised a reward system for the girls who completed the challenges, along with a small competition for the designs that met the criteria in the best way, but I also tried to make sure that every girl walked out of that classroom with at least some sort of reward. Some of the girls were not happy with that, though. Several different students came up to me after class, irrationally angry that every student had gotten a reward. This was, in their eyes, not fair. Even when I pointed out that they would, perhaps, not have gotten their rewards if I had made the competition more challenging, they insisted that I was still in the wrong.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I had 8th graders. The 8th graders, as it turns out, are a lot more willing to question authority than the girls a year younger than them. This was not too much of a problem – over all, the middle schoolers are great and I love working with them – but I definitely had to keep a serious face at points as they tried to derail the lesson with questions. My co-facilitator came up with a story about sharks, mutant seagulls, and an island to explain the challenge in a more entertaining way, and the girls had a long discussion about how these seagulls could have possibly gotten mutated. The conclusion was a nuclear meltdown under the ocean, which sparked more questions, and I had to stop the discussion there.

Finally, my main challenge for next week is going to be figuring out how to keep the girls engaged towards the end of class, which had poor results during this week. Lunch is right after my lesson, and the girls typically decide they are done with paying attention and ready to leave a half hour before the lesson is over. I haven’t found a solution for this yet, but to be fair, I too would rather be at lunch by that point in the day.

Next week, my students will be learning all about oil spills and trying to clean up a small oil spill of their own. While I am hoping that this lesson will help inspire a new generation of environmental scientists, I am sure that it will instead turn into the next facet of the great mutant seagull debate.