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Teens study pond life at USU biology camp

Sessions at the Vernal campus offer hands-on activities for teens

VERNAL — It may look like a simple drainage pond, but the small body of water behind the Utah State University campus in Vernal is teeming with life.

Brian Greene knows it, and he's about to share his knowledge with the nearly two dozen kids who are attending USU Uintah Basin's first biology field camp.

"Here's what you're going to do," Greene told the group of teenagers after they'd waded into the water with nets to collect specimens.

"In your little petri dish, you're going to scoop up the bigger (insects)," he said. "Use the pipettes to suck up the smaller ones."

Soon the students and their teacher, who is a program manager with the USU Water Quality Extension, were passing around the petri dishes.

"Let everyone see," Green called out as he passed along one of the containers.

"This is a dragonfly larva, so as adults they live up in the air and as juveniles they live in the water," he said.

The teaching moment was one of many over the two-day camp that saw students collecting and analyzing samples not only from the pond, but from a nearby canal with the help of USU faculty and the state Division of Wildlife Resources.

"The university is very research driven, and we're working a lot with kids who are school age on STEM, which is science, technology, engineering and math education," said USU academic adviser and camp coordinator Leslie Jessup.

In 2012, the university's Uintah Basin campus held its first science camp, which featured one session that taught students the physics behind the popular game Angry Birds.

Building on the success of the inaugural camp, the university added the biology field camp and a digital technology camp this year to go along with the science and engineering camp. Students can still register for the digital technology camp, which is set for June 18-20 at the USU campus in Roosevelt.

While each session at the camps involves some classroom instruction, the primary method of teaching is to get students working with their hands to solve real-world problems, Jessup said.

The work done in the pond during the biology camp is a perfect example, she said.

"Some of our questions have been — with the building of this new campus — what is in the pond, what does the water look like and what can we start learning from it as we continue with urban encroachment?" Jessup said. "So we want to start a longitudinal study on the pond, and the kids can help with that."

The hands-on method used at the camps also helps students better retain what they learn, Green said.

"It's much easier for them to understand than if we were just talking about it in a textbook or showing it on a chalkboard," he said.

"If you talk to most scientists, you know, when they were little, they were out exploring in ponds and streams and lakes," Green added. "We want to have that same kind of joy and fun for them, so that maybe someday one of these kids grows up and wants to be a scientist also."

It's a career choice Hanna Boyd of Altamont is already considering, although entymology is probably out of the question.

"I might go into chemistry or paleontology," she said. "I'm not sure about bugs."

She may not be big on bugs, but Boyd is a fan USU's summer camps.

"I've met lots of friends and I probably will come back," she said.

Email: Twitter: GeoffLiesik