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WVU Tech's Camp STEM teaches high school students about math, science [The Register-Herald]

By C.V. Moore, The Register-Herald

On the third floor of Orndorff Hall on the campus of WVU Tech, 16 high school students from all over the state are talking about the advantages and challenges of solar power.

Camp STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), now in its eighth year, teaches youth what math and science are all about, largely through hands-on application. In the process, the camp’s organizers hope to excite the students enough to put them on a career track in one of these fields.

The 46 attendees will use trigonometry and geometry, for example, to build a trebuchet. They will use engineering principals and computer software to build bridges of paper that must hold 200 times their own weight. And they will use chemistry and scientific method to gather water samples at a polluted creek coming from an old coal mine.

“Even though we’re using the ‘boring’ stuff, they get to do fun things with it,” says Kimberlyn Gray, who helps coordinate the camp.

The students in Orndorff Hall have chosen a “Renewable Energy” track, among other course offerings that include computer science, electrical engineering, forensic science and robotics.

The renewables class, taught by WVU Tech professor Dr. Hasan El-Rifai, will look at not only solar, but also wind, biodiesel, water, and geothermal power potential.

The class is particularly relevant in a state like West Virginia, where a non-renewable resource, coal, is a pillar of the economy.

“I’m not saying we should shut down coal,” says El-Rifai. “But I’m saying it’s not enough. The United States still has to import 70 percent of its energy.”

Dennis Chertkovsky, 16, of Teays Valley; John Zaleski, 14, of Harpers Ferry; and Zachary Hess, 17, of Martinsburg all chose the renewables track, but have differing perspectives on fossil fuels.

“Dmitri Mendeleev said, ‘Why burn oil for energy?’ You might as well burn money,’” says Cherkovsky, who would rather use the non-renewable resource for medicines and chemical applications than for burning as fuel.

“Renewable energy doesn’t usually involve polluting the atmosphere as much as traditional energy,” he adds.

“You can’t just shut down coal because West Virginia would be much worse off than it already is,” says Zaleski. “My opinion is you can’t get rid of it, but you should find alternatives.

“Whether you believe in global warming or not, eventually fossil fuels will run out. It’s a fact you can’t ignore. (...) We should work on making a smooth transition to renewable energy now,” he says.

“I love (coal),” says Hess, who took the renewables class to feed another of his passions — making money.

“At the heart of it, I’m a capitalist, and any opportunity to see how an idea can be applied to make money, that gets my wheels turning,” he says.

The biodiesel production demonstration gave him a few ideas.

“As expensive as gas is now, I can get myself a diesel car and the only thing I’m going to have to pay for is maintenance, and I can do that myself,” he says.

“West Virginia has a lot to gain (economically) when we try to go toward renewable energy. (...) That’s the biggest problem with green industries now. They are thinking green, but not thinking green.”

So which renewable energy source are these three betting on?

“I believe in the future what will prevail is more modernized versions of what we have now,” says Chertkovsky.

“I’d lobby for microbial biofuels. With wind, I think we’ll have kites or blimps instead of windmills. Probably nuclear will be much safer and more efficient.”

Zaleski and Hess say the future of energy doesn’t exist yet, but Zaleski, at least, thinks it’s time to get cracking.

“I think a big thing will be what country controls it,” says Zaleski. “We need to make sure we get it before some other country does.”

In the shorter term, the teens say they came to Camp STEM to get a taste of their planned future careers and to seek enrichment beyond their public school classrooms. They were also attracted to the camp’s focus on practical applications.

The camp began in the school’s computer science department but has gradually grown to encompass all STEM disciplines. Gray says some of the camp’s earlier students are now attending college on the WVU Tech campus.

Students spend their days in chosen classes and then participate in evening problem solving activities, like trying to move a bucket of “radioactive marshmallows” into another bucket without touching them.

Camp STEM costs $250 for six days, and scholarships are available. Students must meet certain requirements, and space is limited, so applications are required.

View pictures from 2012 Camp STEM.