By Benjamin Kibbey
A rite of passage for Kern County elementary students for more than a half-century, Camp KEEP activities were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but staff moved quickly to keep students engaged.
Virtual Camp KEEP offers a week-long curriculum, and Elizabeth “Salamander” Roberts, the program supervisor, said she had a lot of feedback from teachers that even students who usually disengage during virtual learning are engaging well in the online camp.
“It’s doing science — it’s not just listening to a lecture or trying to make sense of all the vocabulary or the instructions — they’re actually doing things,” Roberts said.
On the first day at a regular Camp KEEP, children make a nametag from a wood cookie, she said. Each child is supplied with a wood cookie in their Science Adventure Kit with the virtual camp — a backpack filled with journaling supplies and tools, including a measuring tape and magnifying glass, participation awards, and an optional souvenir T-shirt.
Once they have their nametag done, there’s a live video lesson where Camp KEEP staff instruct the children in scientific methods and tools.
It begins by showing taxidermized skulls from the camp’s museum, which she refers to on ZOOM as “mystery skulls,” Roberts said. Questions are presented, such as whether the children think the teeth are of a particular shape or type, and the students vote on their opinions.
“Once they have all that evidence, then we send them to a little break-out room [in ZOOM], and they state with their friends what their choice is and why they chose that,” she said. “And if they disagree, we talk about how you have a constructive disagreement.”
Especially in the current cultural climate, Roberts thinks it’s essential for children to learn how to build an opinion from evidence and then have a civil discussion about their view.
From there, students learn about keeping a scientific journal and are encouraged to explore things from their yard or neighborhood, such as a leaf or piece of fruit. In the final lesson, they journal again, but while observing live animals.
“That’s how we try to bring these moments, that we would normally do out on a hike, to their home,” Roberts said.
For businesses or individuals who want to support the camp, donations are accepted to help create the backpack science kits for students, Roberts said. She also expressed appreciation for the extra support that schools such as Wallace Elementary in the Kernville Union School District has given by covering attendance costs for students whose families could not afford the expense.