This is an article from the spring 2020 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

Imagine hiking Mount Washburn in Yellowstone National Park, elevation 10,243 feet. It’s the first time you’ve ever climbed a mountain. Your legs ache. You’re sweating. You’re exhausted and basically terrified by the whole experience.

Then you reach the top and look around. 

“The view is incredible,” says second-year LSA student Erica Pillar. “You can see the other mountains. There are mountain goats. You feel like you’re on top of the world. 

“I thought, ‘Wow, this exists?’ Then I thought, ‘I want to study how these mountains were formed.’”

Pillar is a former participant of LSA’s Earth Camp, a program for teenagers in Michigan who have a budding interest in science but aren’t often exposed to engaging opportunities to learn about earth sciences in their high schools, extracurriculars, or with their families. The free program makes a point to recruit students often underrepresented in science and math.

Pillar now studies geology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. 

“I want to understand the planet on a physical level,” she says. “People ask why I’m studying rocks, and I say, ‘Because it’s exciting!’” 

Talking Rocks

Earth Camp spans three summers — students remain in the same cohort for all three years — and begins the summer after ninth grade. During that first summer, students come to Ann Arbor, stay in dorms, and get a chance to become familiar with campus. They also search for macroinvertebrates in the Huron River, go kayaking, and visit Sleeping Bear Dunes. “For some, it’s their first time ever being in the Great Lakes, their first time ever being away from family,” says Jenna Munson, Earth Camp’s program director. “We want them to have a strong home base.” 

Students travel to the Upper Peninsula for the second summer, where they meet with local geologists to discuss environmental consulting and remediation, visit the Quincy Copper Mine, and explore Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. 

The capstone summer takes place in Wyoming and is based at LSA’s Camp Davis field station. From there, students travel to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and hike Mount Washburn.

All of these field trips help prepare students to enter science classes once they get to college, exposing them to subjects like natural rock formations and tectonics. 

“Instead of sitting in the classroom and being shown diagrams of how the water cycle works, we get to go out in the field and see all of the factors that influence that process in action,” says Pillar. “Things you never have a chance to experience in real life.” 

The first two summers of Earth Camp focus on the water and environmental issues in Michigan. Students learn about studying earth sciences through interactive activities and conversations with alumni. Photos courtesy of Jenna Munson.

Founded in 2015, Earth Camp is a relatively new program, but the results are impressive. “Over 95% of our graduates are majoring in STEM,” says Munson. “They’re first-year and second-year students now, so they haven’t officially declared, but half have indicated they’re planning to major in geology or another field in earth sciences.”

Forty students have completed all three summers of Earth Camp. Eight of those are current U-M undergraduates, all majoring in STEM. “We’ve already had a positive impact on increasing diversity in majors in only two years,” says Munson, “and not just in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.”

Munson advocates for students after they’ve finished Earth Camp, too. For those at U-M, she acts as an advisor, connecting them with work opportunities and organizing a monthly dinner. Pillar says that this sense of close-knit community has shaped her college experience.

“We spent hours together in the mountains and we all got really close,” she says. “Jenna really supports us. She’s super dedicated to making sure we’re thriving.” 

Pillar still goes to Earth Camp, only now as an instructor.

“The program gave me a launchpad for what I want to do in college,” she says. “Being an instructor felt like the least I could do for the program that has given me so much. I don’t know where I’d be without it.” 

Every summer, LSA offers a variety of camps for kids and teenagers to participate in hands-on learning and connecting them to real-life researchers. 

Photo by Levi Stroud

Summer Film and Media Camp 

In 2019, the Department of Film, Television, and Media (FTVM) and Wolverine Pathways — a college readiness program for middle and high school students who live in Detroit and within the Southfield and Ypsilanti school districts — created the Summer Film and Media Camp. Students traveled to and from Ann Arbor for two weeks to take classes at the free camp, which is the first of its kind offered in the humanities at U-M.

The camp was designed by FTVM under the guidance of chair Yeidy Rivero and professors David Marek, Dan Shere, and Sarah Murray. They wanted to give students a realistic, humanities-based college experience that was also hands-on, creative, and mimicked the media industries. Classes focused on production and screenwriting as well as media theory, history, and culture. “A lot of students don’t even know you can study media,” says Murray. “They become more knowledgeable consumers and makers of media when students see how the ingredients come together.” 

Students learned to produce and direct a studio set with Marek and wrote screenplays with Shere, a unique challenge for high-schoolers. “Sitting around a room sharing story ideas is a vulnerable experience, especially when you’re that age,” says Murray.

Students also got to pitch a television show concept to their classmates. In many cases, the projects became personal. “The students’ pitches were often modified versions of shows they’d already seen,” Murray says. “They talked a lot about how they’d do those storylines differently, based on their own life experience.

“For a lot of these students, realistic representation of life in different socioeconomic situations really mattered,” says Murray. “With a richer, more realistic, behind-the-scenes understanding of how media are made, students felt more empowered to challenge existing narratives about family and hardship. By teaching them why some stories get told and others don’t, things really started to click.”

Photo by Natalie Condon

Camp Explorations 

Every summer at Camp Explorations, dozens of students aged 4–12 become paleontologists, astronomers, zoologists, and archaeologists. At full- and half-day sessions at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, campers play games and do activities centered around themes like dinosaurs, space, and detective work to name  a few. Even more fun? The activities often take place in the galleries of the museum. 

“Students learn by doing,” says Brittany Burgess, director of Camp Explorations. “They can play a fossil game in a space where they’re surrounded by actual fossils.” This hands-on approach is integral to the camp and transforms students’ understanding of science. 

“We want to show kids that you don’t just need a lab coat and goggles to be a scientist,” Burgess says. 

Each activity lets students take what they learn and express it in a creative and fun way. Physics becomes rocket launching. Forensic science becomes visits to a real-life police station and following clues to solve a pretend crime. Paleontology becomes creating dioramas of the ideal T. rex habitat. Astronomy becomes trips to the planetarium and talking about constellations.

Campers also visit the new labs in the Biological Sciences Building to see professors and graduate students at work. Since they’re so young, Burgess wants campers to feel that science is approachable and inclusive as a way to keep them excited about learning.

“Even if they don’t understand exactly what the professor is talking about, the kids get so excited to be in a place that studies something cool like fish brains,” she says.



Top photo courtesy of Jenna Munson