Tag Archives: STEM

Meet Your Teachers

How does a person end up teaching at AstroCamp? Most instructors study physics as undergraduates. Mathematicians and biologists are represented on staff, too! All share a passion for communicating science to children.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 11.38.56 AM L: Caity helps a student look for micrometeorites. During summer camp, she teaches rock climbing on Idyllwild’s iconic granite. R: Christian debriefs students as part of their wind turbine engineering process. He plans to move to Europe for graduate study this fall.

Some pursue advanced degrees before coming to camp. This season’s teaching pool includes experts in fusion plasma dynamics and group theory.

DanJpg1 Dan, Ph.D. (physics, UW Madison) and extreme endurance athlete, guides students through an interactive exploration of electromagnetism.

AstroCamp balances hands-on lab time, science outreach, and outdoor recreation. This unusual combination draws a unique applicant pool from all over the country. Before they get here, they’re students, teachers, Scouts, park rangers, band members, and more. Some arrive straight from school, while others wrap up long-term adventures at camp, happy to find a haven of STEM education and like-minded scientists in a mountain playground.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 11.39.12 AM L: Britta takes in the view from Tahquitz Peak, five miles’ hike from AstroCamp. R: Kyle catches sunset on the mountainside. During summer camp, Britta and Kyle lead trail running classes.

The people who find themselves at home here are kids at heart. Instructors are drawn to AstroCamp by a desire to share their perspective and excitement about science: it’s all around us, it’s fun, and the best way to “get it” is by getting your hands dirty!

EvaColleenjpg Eva (L) and Colleen (R) are all smiles after the spring color throw. Eva and Colleen both worked as planetarium presenters before coming to AstroCamp.

DIY: Make a Magnetic Slime Monster!

Did you know that our planet is a giant magnet? It’s true! Without Earth’s magnetic field, compass navigation would be impossible. The field also shields us from cosmic radiation, directing most solar wind far around our planet. In space, large objects are generally too distant from each other to be noticeably pulled or pushed by the magnetic force between them. Here on the surface of the Earth, we have the advantage of being able to bring magnetic materials close together, which makes for some awesome experimental science!

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that iron sticks to magnets. Really, that’s all this demonstration is showing us. However, crazy, alien-like slime is a little cooler than slapping a magnet on a refrigerator. It’s lots of fun to make, and it’s not too difficult!

Mag Slime SetupHere is what you will need to make this at home:

  • A place where it is okay to make a mess
  • A mixing bowl, a small cup or beaker, and a spoon
  • A full container of school glue
  • Borax
  • Water
  • Iron filings and a neodymium magnet
  • Towels

Start by pouring the glue into the mixing bowl. Then, to get all of the glue out of the bottle, fill it with water. Shake it a lot to mix it up, and pour that into the bowl as well. Sprinkle some iron filings into the glue and water, keeping in mind that you can always add more later. It should look something like this:

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Next, fill your cup or beaker about halfway with water. Slowly add borax, stirring it in until it dissolves completely. Pour this solution into the bowl and start mixing. We started mixing with a fork, but then decided to get our hands dirty!

Slime Mixing gifStirring this mixture feels weird! It slowly clumps into squishy, almost cloth-like strips, but those strips don’t initially like to stay together. That’s okay! Keep squishing them around in the bowl. We found that in the end we had too much water or not enough patience (likely both) so we ditched the extra liquid, pulled all of the solidified bits together, and started molding them into a ball.

At this point, the magnet can be introduced. Note that neodymium magnets are very strong! They will grab anything metal tightly and suddenly. Usually, this only causes surprise, but it can lead to injury. Be careful, and keep this experiment away from all metal or otherwise magnetic objects.

Magnetic Slime gif

Due to the bits of iron in the slime, the magnet is attracted to it. Even cooler, if the magnet and slime are placed close together and left alone, the slime will be attracted to the magnet and cover it entirely! Note that the magnetic slime attack above is sped up a lot. The slime actually takes a few minutes to completely swallow the magnet.

If this isn’t happening with your slime, try adding more iron. We did this several times. Simply sprinkle in some more iron and continue mixing it in until you can’t tell where the iron was added. Don’t be afraid to experiment. After all, this is science!

Written By: Scott Alton, Caela Barry

From Art to Action: Mythbusters 101

Great teachers know the classroom is a stage and leverage that knowledge to create exceptional experiences for students. Classroom audiences have the advantage of being able to interact physically as part of the learning process. If viewers happen to be on the other side of a TV screen, showmanship and energy have to compensate for physical distance. Who better to bring explosive, larger-than-life science to living rooms worldwide than a team of accomplished special effects artists? The rotating crew of guerrilla experimenters known as the Mythbusters is just that.


Left to right: Grant Imahara, Jamie Hyneman, Kari Byron, Adam Savage, Tory Belleci. Image credit: Discovery Channel

In their own words, they’re not scientists. The team’s collective work experience is astoundingly broad, with pre-Mythbusters gigs ranging from divemaster to welder to wilderness survival specialist to successful artist and beyond. Their special effects credentials include such franchises as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Terminator. In a 2010 interview, co-host Adam Savage calls the show’s dynamic cast of builder-experimenter-hosts “unencumbered by training.”


This 2009 explosion, designed to test whether it’s possible to knock a person’s socks off, unexpectedly broke windows over a mile away. Mythbusters replaced the shattered windows on the day of the incident. Image credit: Discovery Channel

Co-host Jamie Hyneman agrees: “if we knew what we were doing we wouldn’t be entertaining.” These experimenters aren’t teaching their expertise, they’re problem-solving and learning in front of an audience– and that’s a huge part of their appeal. Hollywood artistry and resources take viewers along on a wild crash-test of a ride. It’s raw curiosity armed with action movie appeal, contagious enthusiasm, and a whole lot of imagination. The Mythbusters are popularizing a pure, accessible form of science. Ask an interesting question, design a test, learn something new, and have fun doing it. This is exactly what kids need to see.

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AstroCamp science question of the day: how big a cloud can we make if we pour all of our leftover liquid nitrogen from the dining hall deck into a tub of hot water? Answer: this big!

Meet Astrocamp’s Newest Class!

Ever cover the end of a garden hose with your thumb to turn it into a long-range water blaster? The same thing happens when wind is squeezed between mountain ranges. This is called the Venturi effect, and it’s how wind engineers make the most of their turbine placements. California’s desert valleys are home to America’s oldest wind farms because they function as natural wind tunnels.

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The San Gorgonio Pass wind farm, just down the mountain from Astrocamp, is one of the oldest in the United States. Its operational capacity is 615MW. For more on how a windmill actually produces electricity, click here! Photo credit: Gregg M. Erickson.

Wind energy has seen massive expansion since it first gained traction in the 1980s, and it continues to grow. In 2014, U.S. wind farms generated over 180 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. That’s enough to power about 15% of domestic households. A recent Harvard study indicates that establishing a widespread turbine network across the central plains of the U.S. would power the nation many times over. Taking hydropower and other forms of electrical generation into account, Europe and China produce comparable levels of renewable energy, and many other regions are in hot pursuit.

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Global renewable electricity production by region, historical and projected. Source: International Energy Agency.

Many of the engineers who will propel the world into a more sustainable future are training in today’s elementary classrooms. The skills they’ll need as future problem-solvers can and should be learned now. AstroCamp’s newest curriculum offering encourages young people to practice the engineering cycle in an environment that balances collaboration, friendly competition, and real-world relevance.

WW KeyCroppedTheir goal: Create, through several iterations of design and testing, a turbine to maximize power production from a model wind source, then team up with classmates to power a LEGO skyscraper!


Kids And Their Robots

Rough terrain. Unsurpassable obstacles. Navigating the rocky unknown with little help from home. These are the challenges space robots face as they explore distant worlds and the engineering problems tackled by the teams that design the rovers. Grade school might be a little early for NASA recruiting, but it’s a great time to start playing with the endless possibilities of robotics! At AstroCamp, kids create LEGO rovers to surmount all kinds of space-like challenges. The rovers must handle uneven ground, avoid unclimbable walls and murderous drop-offs, and collect samples to bring back to home base. It’s not just a building challenge, either! Students program their robots to get the job done with minimal human interference.


In advanced classes, pairs of young engineers invent & build robots from scratch. Each step of the process requires teamwork, creativity, and plenty of persistence. Campers quickly discover that programming is rarely a one-shot deal. They learn that the best line-following robots take their time, and that adding a sensor or claw often means tweaking programs to account for the extra weight. Like grown-up rocket scientists, they must revise and re-test their design to develop it into a working system.


In space, the tactical difficulties of pushing the final frontier ever outward have led to some truly awesome machines. Curiosity was lowered to the Martian surface from a hovering sky-crane– and that’s after riding the thin local atmosphere to a screaming halt with the help of a giant supersonic parachute. Curiosity’s predecessor, Spirit, crashed into the red planet amidst a cluster of airbags, coming safely to rest after a series of bounces up to 5 stories tall. Philae, the lander Rosetta dropped onto a comet last year, wields harpoons inside its washing-machine-sized body, designed to help anchor the lander in a spot where its solar panels could charge. Unfortunately, the harpoons didn’t deploy on impact, but what an idea! Space inspires incredible robotic inventions.

At the middle and high school level, robotics lays the foundation for a lifetime of problem-solving on Earth and beyond. Students learn that failure provides valuable insights. They experience trial and error as necessary steps in the innovation process. They also gain practical knowledge as they’re exposed to the basics of design and programming, making them less likely to be intimidated by future engineering opportunities.



#WhySpaceMatters: NASA’s Anniversary

If you’d like to know what’s out there in the universe, it’s an awfully exciting century to be alive! From Vostok to Hubble to New Horizons, ambitious feats of engineering are bringing our corner of the cosmos into fuller detail and color all the time. At AstroCamp, we’re all about harnessing the wonder of space exploration as fuel for passion and inquiry. We hope that some of the students who peer through our telescopes into the deep, dark beyond will keep looking and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge as part of the next generation of scientists.


Campers at AstroCamp are #whyspacematters!

Space matters because it stimulates curiosity, drives innovation, and lends context to our existence on Earth. It matters because it changes our perspective on everything. In honor of NASA’s anniversary, here are a few mind-bending ideas that show #whyspacematters to us.


Campers get a closer look at the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. Credit: Andy Balendy

Look up at the night sky. You are experiencing a tiny gravitational pull from every star and planet you see, and hundreds of billions that you don’t see. Even weirder, your body is pulling back on each one! If you replaced the sun with a black hole of the same mass, Earth’s orbit wouldn’t change, but 8.3 minutes later we’d get very, very cold. That’s the amount of time it would take for the sun’s last light to reach Earth.

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Two black holes (shown in purple) in spiral galaxy Caldwell 5. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DSS

When you look out into space, you’re also looking back in time. The average distance to a star you can see with the naked eye is in the ballpark of 100 light-years. This means the image your eyes receive is about 100 years old. The closest star to earth is 4.22 light-years away. If it mysteriously disappeared right this second, we’d have no idea until 2019! The Milky Way and its nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, are on course to collide in roughly 4 billion years, as our sun nears the end of its life. Galaxies are mostly empty space, so the odds of things actually smashing into each other are remote, but any life forms present at that time will witness a complete transformation of the night sky.

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New Horizons LORRI image of Pluto, 7/14/2015. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Over 70 years ago, within the memory of many people alive today, no spacecraft had ever left our home planet. As of this writing, 533 people have orbited Earth. 12 have walked on the moon. A telescope the size of a school bus floats in space, probing the history of the universe. Robots study nearby worlds on our behalf. Voyager 1, which has been sailing towards the distant stars since 1977, is now three times as far from the sun as Pluto, over 12 billion miles away from Earth… and counting!

Happy Anniversary NASA! Here’s to the bright future of exploring the great unknown.

DIY Project on Teacher Appreciation Day!

What a great holiday! Teachers are incredibly important in a child’s life, and their influence doesn’t stop when the school year ends. Their experiences, ideas, and memories will stay with their students for years to come. In addition, most kids decide whether or not they are interested in science or math at a very young age. As these STEM fields become more important than ever, this becomes a real issue.

At AstroCamp, we are science enthusiasts. This probably comes from the fact that we get to see awesome science demonstrations and experiment with amazing materials every day. However, we understand that this isn’t the background of every teacher. Trying to teach something that you aren’t familiar with can be a very tall task. As such, we wanted to give back with an easy but incredibly cool DIY science project!

One of the reasons this is a great demonstration is that the materials are easy to procure. All you need is a plate, dish soap, food coloring, whole milk, and a cotton swab.

Milk Soap 1

To perform the demonstration, simply pour some milk into the plate. Add food coloring drops on top. It doesn’t really matter where you put the food coloring so feel free to get creative!

Milk Soap 2Milk Soap 3

Once you are satisfied with your food coloring artistry, add a bit of soap to the cotton swab. Simply dip it into the milk. Enjoy!

Milk Soap 4

Wow! One of the other great things about this demonstration is that it can be used to teach more than one thing! For younger kids, you can add certain colors and use it as an experiment where the goal is to learn about how colors mix together.

For more advanced or older students, it can be used to illustrate quite a bit. It all starts with something called “surface tension”. Water molecules (H2O) are highly polar, meaning one side is positively charged, while the other is more negative. These opposite charges attract. The oxygen parts of one molecule will be attracted to the hydrogen portions of nearby water molecules creating a tightly attracted tangled mess.

Inside the water, this pull occurs in all directions. At the surface, the water is pulled down, as it is not attracted to the air in the same way. This attraction causes the surface to hold together. With small amounts of water, this is what causes droplets to form. However, if some other molecules get in the way of this attraction, the surface tension will change.

Milk is mostly water with some dissolved fat molecules and other stuff in it. Soap molecules have two parts: A polar head that interacts nicely with water, and a hydrocarbon tail that doesn’t get along with water at all! When the soap is introduced, it quickly begins to surround the fat molecules in the milk. This disrupts the surface tension in the center of the plate, leading to the rest of the surface being pulled away by the remaining surface tension further from the soap.

Milk-Soap Gif

It all happens very quickly, but can be re-initiated by adding another bit of soap! After enough soap is added, all of the fat will be surrounded by soap, and the surface tension will be irreparably changed. At this point, adding soap won’t do anything further.

At this point, this fun activity is a great teaching tool and demonstration. To make the activity more inquisitive and experimental, feel free to try doing it with other liquids (water, half-and-half, different kinds of milk, juice, coffee etc.) or other kinds of soap and see how the results change!




We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. AstroCamp is a hands-on physical science program with an emphasis on astronomy and space exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and astronomical happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree in Physics or Astronomy, however it is not uncommon for them to have a Masters Degree or PhD. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science, space and astronomy information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.astrocampschool.org for additional information. Happy Reading!