Camp Ignites STEM-Related Wonder in Middle School Students

Cheryl Cheah, UA Biochemistry Club
July 2, 2014

"I should be a scientist or something!"

Those are the words 11-year-old Serinah Sanchez exclaimed during the third annual BlastOff! summer science camp at the University of Arizona, right after completing a puzzle. That "aha" moment came after she successfully translated an mRNA code into a message that said, "I'm ready for science." And as members of University of Arizona Biochemistry Club, these are the moments we are trying to create.

Middle school students are very inquisitive at this point in their lives, making it a great time to expose them to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM disciplines.

It was three years ago that officers of the UA Biochemistry Club, under the guidance of James Hazzard, a senior lecturer in the UA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the club's adviser, initiated the BlastOff! camp. It began as a way for club members, like myself, to share their passion for science with younger students. Now, BlastOff! is one of the club's most visible outreach events.

Under the guidance of undergraduate camp counselors and mentors, a group of 19 students from Mansfeld, Roskruge and Utterback middle schools spent a week with us exploring the fundamentals of science, and experiencing the excitement and joy that science can bring.

Recent UA grads Wesley Cai and Andy Phan decided on "macrobiology to microbiology" as this year's theme. During the camp, we introduced the students to whole organisms and their habitats, then organs, cells and also DNA, RNA and protein. With Melissa Harnois, the club's vice president, we aimed to present a camp that would be worthwhile for the energetic future scientists.

It appeared our efforts had impact the moment the group set foot in the UA's Henry Koffler Building.

Our week began by introducing the campers to ecological systems and the diversity we see here in the Sonoran Desert. We began by exploring one of the many hidden gems on the UA campus – the turtle pond. While there, the students made careful observations of their surroundings. They collected water samples from the pond and examined, under microscopes, the various protozoa from their water samples.

Later that day, the campers received a visit from creepy crawlies from the insect lab of the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium. Those who are non-entomophobic were able to touch and hold Madagascar hissing cockroaches, caterpillars and mealworms. After a very personal encounter with the insects, the campers were thrilled when two zoologists from the Reid Park Zoo visited the camp with a few animal friends: a friendly looking hedgehog and ferret and the more devilish looking, but thankfully non-venomous, python.

On the organ systems day of the camp, the UA College of Medicine's Office of Diversity and Inclusion's outreach team gave students an up-close view of the respiratory system, using pig lungs as a model for human lungs. Seeing a healthy lung and one that was exposed to 30,000 hours of cigarette smoke after extraction, students compared the elasticity and weight of the two lung models by touching them as an air compressor inflated the lungs. More importantly, they were able to see the vast difference in color and quality of the lungs.

And a biological-themed science camp would not be complete without venturing into the topic of DNA and genes.

After exploring the basics of DNA replication and transcription, campers got to examine wild type and mutant fruit fly models provided by Daniela Zarnescu's lab in the UA Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Students were able to look at the fruit flies under microscopes, learning about the basics of genetics with graduate and undergraduate students from the lab.

The week came to a close, involving parents, with the 2014 BlastOff! Science Fair. Throughout the week, students worked in small groups to create a poster indicating their favorite activities from the week and the knowledge they acquired. As they showed off their posters to their parents, one another and the camp counselors, it was apparent how much the campers had learned about biology. Their presentations reflected all of the fun we had together in the process. The camp was a success, and the club is already looking forward to developing more young scientists next year.

Cheryl Cheah is a UA Honors College senior majoring in biochemistry and applied mathematics. Cheah served as the Biochemistry Club treasurer during the 2013-2014 school year and, beginning this fall, will serve as the club president. She has been a member of the Biochemistry Club since her freshman year, believing that networking with upperclassmen through club would help her manage the rigorous coursework in the biochemistry program. Cheah is a self-described advocate devoted to inspiring younger students to pursue higher education, especially in STEM. 

The BlastOff! Camp was generously supported by funding from the Undergraduate Affiliate Network/ASBMB, University of Arizona’s College of Medicine Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Sanofi-Aventis, Ventana Medical Systems, Research Corporation for Science, College of Science, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and food donations from Chick-fil-A at El Con. For more information about the camp, or to support the 2015 camp contact, please contact Cheryl Cheah at


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