HAVERHILL Students from the Merrimack Valley said they had no idea theyd be spending part of their summer solving a murder, assembling circuits or designing objects for 3-D printing.
For many, the ambitious agenda of an innovative STEM College for Kids camp turned out to be the best part of their school vacation.
"This camp was the most fun thing I did all summer, and I got to meet some great kids," said Brandon Liranzo, who is entering eighth grade at Comprehensive Grammar School in Methuen.
During the camp at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Liranzo said he designed an ultimate fighting ring where competitors can battle it out.
The free camp drew 55 students entering the 7th through 10th grades in Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen and other nearby communities. In its second year, the program nearly doubled its first-year enrollment of about 30, said Carolyn Knoepfler, assistant dean of the college's Technology, Arts, Professional Studies and Science division.
Knoepfler said the program was a great opportunity for middle school and high school students to come to a college campus, meet faculty and dabble in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"Northern Essex faculty provided kids with a lot of hands-on learning, while making it fun," she said.
The program held in the Hartleb Technology Center met four days a week, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., for three weeks. It was funded by grants from the state Department of Higher Educations STEM Starter Academy and the Wellesley-based Amelia Peabody Foundation.
For the students, each day brought a series of hands-on projects, often interspersed by lively discussion.
Jay Fallon, coordinator of Northern Essexs advanced manufacturing program, challenged one group of students think creatively by replacing common math symbols with the suits of playing cards.
They performed calculations after designating one suit as addition, another as subtraction, one as multiplication and another as division. He called the exercise "Fast Math Olympics."
Isabella Ward, a rising freshman at Haverhill High School, called that and other math exercises were "intriguing."
"Instead of just working with a math book, we do a lot of math puzzles and solve math riddles, she said.
Ward and other students said they were especially fascinated by a challenge that involved a mock crime scene created by Paul Cavan, a member of the college's criminal justice faculty, and Mike Cross, a chemistry professor and forensic science instructor.
Cravan said the scene, with a mannequin, was created to look like a suicide. But it was actually a homicide.
Kids had to collect evidence and run tests such as fingerprint and (mock) blood analysis, and they also had to identify a person who walked through the crime scene then walked away with some evidence, he said.
Ward said the CSI challenge was really cool.
Yariehz Gabin, entering seventh grade at South Lawrence East School, said the forensics project was so interesting, he wants to return to camp next summer.
"It was my favorite part, and we learned a lot about solving crimes," he said.
Osamuyimen Osayimwen, of Methuen, who is entering his freshman year at Central Catholic High School, said he and his younger brother, Osegi, who is entering seventh grade at St. Monica's in Methuen, liked the camps advanced technology.
He designed a cell phone case using 3-D modeling software.
"The technology here is really advanced, and this camp exceeded our expectations," he said. "And I met a kid who is entering his freshman year at Central as well."
Vincent Nguyen, a rising eighth grader at Whittier Middle School in Haverhill, was absorbed in a project that involved measuring sunlight using a spectrometer.
Students wrote simple computer code to capture data and graph the color spectrum of light, Nguyen said as he looked at the results on a computer screen. They were led by Mike Pelletier, a professor in the center's engineering lab.
"I never did anything like this in school," Nguyen said.
Knoepfler said the Amelia Peabody grant helped pay for a coordinator, Doug Leaffer, who is an assistant professor of engineering at Northern Essex, as well as counselors-in-training. The students who attended the program last year were recommended for jobs at the camp this year.
One of them, Joshua Robles, entering his junior year at Greater Lawrence Technical School, called the camp "amazing."
"The kids were really into it and always wanted to get right to the projects," he said.
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