Bottle rockets, honeysuckle and tents keep science from "boring" sixth graders

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COLUMBIA – Columbia Public Schools wants to make sure sixth graders aren't just learning science from a book.

"That is an incredibly boring way to learn science," said Columbia Public Schools Science Coordinator Mike Szydlowski. 

Many CPS sixth graders have packed overnight bags and hopped on a bus for a two-day camp. 

It has eight stations, with different activities at each one, including archery, hiking and exploring science subjects.

Students also learn how to cook different foods over an outdoor fire and how to create their own science experiments, including a bottle rocket.

Szydlowski said the stations are based off of student interest.

“We want to do something that we can’t do at school. If we can do it at school, we should probably do it at school,” he said.

Oakland Middle School sixth grader Gavin VanBuren is one of the few students from his school who has camped. 

“This is probably my fifth time camping, I’ve gone camping a lot. Back when I lived in Germany, we went and camped out by Munich,” he said.

VanBuren said, this time, camping is different because it includes science.

“The camp teaches us how to really do science experiments. With the bottle rockets, we have to learn independent variables and the dependent variables, and the control. Which is important when you’re doing science experiments,” he said.

This year, students were given a new task: to improve Missouri’s ecosystem. After learning about an invasive species, known as the Bush Honeysuckle, the middle schoolers removed some of the plant harming the forests.

“In 1975, there was not one honeysuckle plant in any forest in Missouri. Now, it’s all over,” Szydlowski said. “The only way to kill it is by what these kids are doing. They cut it about 6 inches from the ground and then adults come later and spray that stump with poison.” 

VanBuren said, “Chopping down honeysuckle is good for the environment. Plus, learning about ecosystems is boring sitting down on a chair.”  

Szydlowski said one of the students’ favorite parts of the camp is sleeping in tents with their classmates. 

“When I grew up, we camped all the time. Over 50 percent of our kids now, it’s their first time ever sleeping in a tent outside," Szydlowski said. “We want to give them that opportunity, while still connecting it to the curriculum.”

Szydlowski started the camp as a science coordinator in St. Louis after he realized the students didn’t get out in the woods enough.

“We have kids every time that will go on a hike and say it’s the first time being in a state park, even though we have a state park right here in our town,” Szydlowski said.

Instructors at the camp include science, math, language arts and physical education teachers.

The camp takes place at Country Day School Property in Columbia and, other than a $10-$15 cost for a t-shirt, Columbia’s science department pays for all of the students’ fees. 

Oakland Middle School was the first school to attend the camp on Sept. 21 and 22. Jefferson Middle School and Gentry Middle School will attend during the end of September and throughout October.

Three other middle schools, Smithton, West and John B. Lange, will be attending the camp in the spring.