Twenty 10th grade students had the opportunity to explore Ann Arbor and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for a week in July during Earth Camp – our one-week residential experience designed to excite and educate students about earth science. Earth Camp also gave them a taste of U-M life – living in dorms, interacting with faculty and geoscience undergraduates (who were their instructors and counselors), and exploring Ann Arbor in the evenings.

We made a number of changes to Earth Camp this year: our admission process was more selective – all our students had GPA’s over 3.0, with a 3.7 average; we added more applied mathematics to our activities; we spent more time discussing career opportunities in the earth sciences; and we added a 3rd day to our Sleeping Bear Dunes trip.

The students spent the week getting outdoors, exploring new environments, and learning a lot about earth science through hands-on activities. Each theme generally consisted of a recreational activity, with the simple goal to get everyone outdoors, a hands-on lesson, and a focus on careers.

The first day they used teamwork and problem-solving to master the low-ropes obstacle course and overcome some of their fears of climbing at the University of Michigan Challenge Program. In the afternoon, they were at Nicholas Arboretum with our drone and the department’s seismic equipment. They all got a chance to fly the drone and take video and photos with the attached GoPro. This was our first experience using the drone with the students and they were hooked! Next year we plan to expand its use to create 3-D aerial images the students can ground truth with scale bars, contour lines, lat/long coordinates, and other information to produce their own maps.

They used the seismic equipment. Each group set it up, learned what each component was for, created a small seismic event with the sledgehammer, and analyzed the real-time data. They were able to use the data to find the distance to the rock layer below and the type of rock underlying the Arboretum. This was our first “test” of incorporating more math into our week – the students were graphing slope, determining velocities from the seismic data, and using equations derived from Snell’s Law during this lesson. The students were all engaged and it was great to see them apply math in a real-life setting. Mathematics has often been termed the gatekeeper of success or failure for high school graduation, which is why we are trying to incorporate more math whenever we can. Our career spotlight this day was on petroleum geologists and other professions who may need to use seismic equipment to “see” underground.

The second day was focused on water quality. They were surprisingly excited about getting wet and dirty during macroinvertebrate collecting and water quality studies in local rivers and ponds. Most managed to stay upright when they kayaked through the newly designed Argo Cascades on the Huron River. For most of them, it was their first time kayaking and they did great with the rapids! The group got to meet Prof. Gregory Dick, who gave a tour of his lab and explained his work with the harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. This segued nicely into a career discussion of environmental consultants.

Our last day in Ann Arbor was spent building nanocrystalline titanium dioxide solar cells using blackberry juice. These types of solar cells mimic photosynthesis, but use the anthocyaninpigment from blackberries instead of chlorophyll to excite and transfer electrons. Building this type of cell makes it easier for students to understand how solar cells work because each step and component can be compared to photosynthesis. Prof. Adam Simon stopped by during this activity to discuss his work with rare earth elements, which are components found in solar cells. He also gave the students a tour of his lab and answered a lot of questions about energy sources of the future. We highlighted careers in alternative energy with the students to end the day.

Another first for most of the students was an overnight trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes. It was a special treat to experience the dunes with students who were seeing them for the first time. They loved climbing and exploring the dunes, as well as swimming in Lake Michigan. They got to explore the park when they were given an aerial image and asked to make it into a map. We helped them figure out their stride length, then had them use this to ground truth their image to make a scale bar. They also used GPS units to add elevation and latitude and longitude to their maps.

Next, they made profiles of the lake bottom (only from shore to ~4 feet deep!). Both of these activities were a huge success in keeping the students interested, sneaking in some math, getting them outside and exploring, and working in teams.

We ended Earth Camp the next morning doing a service project in the park that had given us so many great experience and memories. The students walked the new bike path and pulled invasive plant species from its edges. It was an incredibly successful week with a great group of students.


Before camp, the students could list 9 total careers available with an earth science degree. After camp, students could list 25 total and were using “seismologist” as their answer as opposed to initial answers like “earthquake predictor”.

89% agreed: “I enjoy outdoor activities more after Earth Camp”

95% agreed: “Earth Camp increased the likelihood I will attend the University of Michigan”

95% agreed: “Earth Camp increased the likelihood I will pursue earth science as a major in college”

100% of the students indicated they would come back for another Earth Camp experience at our field station in Camp Davis if they were invited

Selected Quotes

“I really loved Earth Camp. I made lots of friends and learned a lot about earth science. It introduced me to a lot of new career options and helped me understand what college might be like and made me really excited for it as well!”

“Before camp started, I was really nervous about it because I'm a shy, quiet person and I was scared that I wouldn't make friends. Everyone was so nice and I feel like I have a new family. Before Earth Camp, I was interested in earth science, but I hadn't considered it as a career. I didn't know that there were so many possible jobs that you could get with an earth science degree. Now I am really considering going into earth science. Earth camp also impacted me because I got to see many new places and try so many new things like kayaking and climbing the dunes. Earth camp is hands-down the best thing I've done so far this year!!”

“I am extremely excited about going to college now. Earth Camp showed me what its like and I’m sure I want to go to college now.”

“I never new much about earth science careers, yet after camp I knew more about careers. Being able to talk to professors at U of M was the highlight of Earth Camp because the lab tours really made me appreciate what earth science looks like in college and the careers available. Overall it was great and has U of M on my radar”

“My Earth Camp experience. Where do I begin? One of the best things about Earth Camp was the people. I loved all the different personalities that our group had (including the counselors) and that made camp more enjoyable right off the bat. Next, the activities. They were designed in a way that allowed us to increase our team building skills that we would use throughout the camp and in our lives outside of camp. It also allowed us to get to know each other to the point where we were a large family that did everything together. Lastly, this camp impacted me on so many levels it’s crazy. Going to this camp allowed me to be more outgoing and truly express myself. It made me more confident in my abilities when I had people encouraging me and vice versa for when I was encouraging them - always wanting them to succeed. It felt good to learn more about yourself and others in a setting like this”

Future Plans

The immediate goal of Earth Camp is to attract excellent students from diverse backgrounds to the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan.  A broader and longer-term goal is to diversify the geosciences workforce. 

Efforts to build on this summer residential camp continue, with the goal of sustaining a robust outreach program that engages students with field experiences for subsequent summers after their initial 10th grade experience and draws excellent high-school students to the department for years to come. We are starting an effort to seek industry support to fund Earth Camp. If you are able to help with this effort within your company, please contact our outreach specialist at