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Intriguing preschoolers with STEM

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Monica Shire

Body Mechanics camp teaches youngsters that engineering is fun

Teaching a gaggle of 4- through 6-year-olds how to analyze the X-rays of a patient with scoliosis may seem like a herculean task.

But at the University of Delaware’s Body Mechanics camp, sponsored by the Laboratory Preschool, the eager youngsters joined Jenni Buckley, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, on the floor of her Design Lab, contorting themselves into S-shaped replicas.

"I learned about scoliosis,” 4-year-old Emerson said. “It makes your body not straight. My doctor can help."

And Vincent, also age 4, confessed to being scared of the skeleton, “but I became brave. And I learned that animals have bones, even T.rexes."

While teaching young children about bones, tendons, cartilage and X-rays may seem premature, experts disagree.

“It is never too early to explore STEM topics with children — they are naturally inclined to explore and question, and high-quality learning environments provide children with the structure to do just this,” explained Monica Shire, master teacher at the Lab Preschool. “Research has shown that high-quality pre-K cuts the rate of children being held back a grade in half and increases college attendance by a whopping 80 percent and employment by 23 percent.”

“The Lab School’s work in STEM areas is designed to address this learning gap,” said Cynthia Paris, director of the Lab School. “We use our summer programs as development and testing sites for new curriculum that we then integrate into our school-year programs.”

Body Mechanics is one of four STEM summer programs offered by the UD Lab School. It was developed in collaboration with UD’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and The Perry Initiative — an outreach program aimed at building the pipeline for women in engineering and medicine.

“We’re really fortunate to have a great partnership between the mechanical engineering and education programs here at UD that allows us to open up our labs and design spaces for students of all ages to have a real-world experience,” said Buckley. “Honestly, I was more intimidated working with these really young ones than I am with my undergraduate students, but Monica and her team were great partners in developing this curriculum.”

The two-week camp featured a wide range of hands-on explorations, problem-solving and inquiry about the mechanical workings of the human body.  

Campers learned about bone anatomy. They broke chalk to simulate the forces that yield different bone fracture patterns and glued “hands” back together, using cotton swabs to mimic fractured fingers. They developed prosthetics for three-legged stuffed dogs, learned how to put casts on their arms and threaded bones and cartilage onto string to create a flexible spine.

Once their scientific endeavors were complete, campers spent their afternoons making and eating organic snacks, practicing yoga and creating an enormous cardboard playhouse.

Erin Rezich, a rising junior in mechanical engineering, assisted Buckley with the camp.

"It is so rewarding to inspire future generations of scientists and engineers. It's really incredible to hear from students of all ages about how impactful these hands-on experiences are on academic and career interest,” said Rezich. “Most of these kids will remember this time when they got a cast on their arm and how it made them think about areas of science to which they were not previously exposed. It's an honor to be part of that experience."

The Lab School is offering three other programs this summer that encourage children ages 3 through 8 to build, experiment, explore and learn while playing with friends indoors and out:

• Exploring Science Outside: Nature Explorers Camp,

• My Incredible, Flexible Brain: I Can Be Mindful Camp and

• Making and Tinkering with STEAM Camp

The three remaining camps, which begin on Monday, June 19, have openings, and registration is still open. In addition, the Lab School has a few spaces remaining for 4- and 5-year-olds in the school-year programs. Visit the Laboratory Preschool website or call 302-831-2304 for information.








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