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Activities, events keep students in DeKalb County engaged while school is out

DeKALB – School’s out for Andrew Reid, but that doesn’t mean he’s taking a break from learning.

Reid, who will be a senior at suburban Elmwood Park High School, was among those who traveled to DeKalb this week for a weeklong STEM Outreach Camp at Northern Illinois University.

On Tuesday, Reid was one of about a dozen high schoolers who used a bicycle bump to create air pressure to launch 2-liter bottles – most of them containing water, some of them not – into the air to measure their velocity. An engineering camp also is happening at NIU this week.

“It’s fun science,” Reid said. “It’s strictly science, sometimes it’s engineering, but we’re sticking around science.”

NIU and local libraries work to combat the so-called “summer slide,” the vacation period when students math and reading skills can erode, by offering programs and events that keep them engaged, while also introducing them to potential careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“As a younger man, I understand over the summer, you kind of ... forget everything you learned,” said Sam Watt, a 2014 NIU grad and camp counselor. “Kids love to learn. It gives them something fun to do. They’re wanting to learn.”

STEM Read at NIU organizes events and activities centered around popular science fiction all year. In May, they hosted a party commemorating the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and Orson Welles’ birthday.

“Having lots of activities to do in the summer keeps up their skills and helps keep them motivated to learn,” said Gillian King-Cargile, the director of STEM Read NIU. “That’s where summer camps can be really helpful.”

This week, A STEM Read Summer Camp was scheduled that would center activities and lessons around the best-selling book “The Martian” by Andy Weir. It was canceled, however, because of a lack of sign-ups. It was integrated into the current STEM camp, but still incorporated some of the planned events, such as a Skype session with Weir.

Celeste Shea, an incoming sophomore at Kankakee High School, originally signed up for “The Martian”-themed camp, but said she wasn’t sad about attending the STEM Outreach camp instead.

“I know personally, over the summer, I get back to school and I’m not used to that education, and sometimes we lose sight of how fun education can be,” Shea said.

“This is fun, right?” Shea added as a Coke bottle blasted off from behind her and hit some treetops. “This is really fun.”

The lack of attendance for “The Martian” camp is not indicative of the other STEM camps this summer, as there are about 300 youngsters enrolled, King-Cargile said.

“All of the camp enrollments across NIU have been up,” she said. “It’s not telling this one didn’t make it. Sometimes they don’t fill up the way we expect them to.”

She said they will probably schedule another camp centered around “The Martian” in the future because the upcoming film adaptation starring Matt Damon should drum up more interest in the source material, King-Cargile said.

To coincide with the construction of their expansion, the DeKalb Public Library will host several events surrounding fictional world-building.

Evelyn Lorence, head of youth and teen services at the Sycamore Public Library, said the summer slope especially affects young people’s reading level. They offer the Summer Reading Challenge online, which offers prizes in exchange for reading over the summer.

“I know there’s been several studies done that show the longer you go without keeping your mind engaged, the more information you lose over the summer,” Lorence said. “You have to start from scratch in the upcoming school year.”

This year’s library activities are centered around music, Lorence said. Last year, they were centered around science, Lorence said.

She said library shelves are “often overflowing,” but this summer, they’re mostly empty.

“It’s kids who are bored looking for something to do, or parents who are bored looking for something for their kids to do,” Lorence said. “It’s a good cross-section of the community.”

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