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Helping Young Chemists See Themselves—and Their Cells—in the Lab

The 13- and 14-year-olds at Biochem Camp, a new camp for young scientists put on by the Chemistry Department, got to see something new during their three days of experiments: the chemicals in their own bodies.

Along with testing various everyday foods to discover what chemicals were inside, students extracted the DNA from the cells lining their cheeks. These experiments—and many more—put the test tubes in the campers’ ready hands. Seeing the chemistry at work in these familiar substances helped the students understand the complex science behind every day processes.

“All kids seem to gravitate more easily to biological things, because they have heard the term DNA [and] they have heard the term protein,” said Dr. Daniel Ess, one of the faculty directing Biochem Camp. “I think these kids . . . eat it up.”

The addition of Biochem Camp this summer comes after the success of last year’s Chem Camp, which showed 9- to 12-year-old campers how fun chemistry can be. This year, everything was bigger and better: enrollment at Chem Camp grew from 48 to over 100; new experiments for the students were developed; and BYU students enrolled in a special class during winter semester to prepare to become counselors.

Josie Tueller, a Biochem Camp counselor majoring in microbiology, had an experience similar to Biochem Camp when she was young.

“I can remember an annual STEM day for girls [in middle school] that I went to that was pretty influential,” said Tueller. “I feel like that was a really great experience for me, that people encouraged me to do STEM. . . . I had access to it because of some people who just reached out to me and made sure that it was an opportunity in my life. . . . I think it’s maybe harder for girls to see themselves doing science until they actually do it.”

The goal of both camps is to reach out to all potential scientists and get them excited about the field. One of the founding principles of the camps is to always enroll an equal number of boys and girls.

“I think it has been really cool that there are lots of girls doing Chem Camp,” said Tueller. “If anybody feels like they can do science because this made it a little bit more accessible to them, I am super happy about that.”

One of Tueller’s 13-year-old campers, Emma Laughlin, expressed her own enthusiasm about science.

“I thought [Biochem Camp] would be kind of cool because I like chemistry,” Laughlin said. “I think it is really interesting. I want to be a doctor. I want to start heading into the medical careers, so I thought this was a nice step towards [that].”

According to biochemistry professor and Biocamp co-director Dr. Joshua Anderson, these camps are focused on getting kids excited about science at exactly the right time.

“One of the reasons why we picked this age group is because . . . research shows that junior high kids often feel pressured to get out of STEM, even if they are interested in STEM to begin with,” said Anderson. “They might feel social pressure to abandon STEM because it is not cool. So the goal of a camp like this is to keep kids interested.”

And, judging by the campers’ smiling eagerness to do science, it looks like the goal was met.

“[In middle school], we mostly just did a few little [experiments], not any serious ones like this,” said 14-year-old camper Ethan Rogers. “[Camp] is really fun. We get to do lots of fun experiments and there is a lot of different things to do.”

When asked if Biochem Camp made him more excited about science, Rogers’s answer was immediate.

“Yeah!” said Rogers. “Because science is fun, it’s really fun!”

—Mitch Rogers

By Mitch Rogers Posted on