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STEM Camp encourages learning by doing

University of Minnesota Extension STEM Coordinator Vilai Khanya assists 4-H’er Anna Gordon, 8, as she searches through an owl pellet for bones. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)1 / 7
Bones pulled from an owl pellet by one of the participants in the STEM camp. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)2 / 7
Rodent skulls found by a STEM camp participant inside an owl pellet being dissected as one of the camp activities. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)3 / 7
STEM Camp participants sort through a box of K’Nex Thursday afternoon as they make items that demonstrate motion. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)4 / 7
(Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)5 / 7
(Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)6 / 7
(Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)7 / 7

WORTHINGTON — “I just touched a bone — nasty!” exclaimed 9-year-old Maida Garcia as she and nearly two dozen other kids dissected owl pellets Thursday afternoon as part of a two-day STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Camp in Worthington.

Across the table, Isaac Kinser was engrossed in the project — and certainly not grossed out.

“I’m discovering this is very, very interesting,” he said, not looking up from his task of picking bones from a crusty glob he preferred to call owl vomit. “I like to do this!”

Kaw Blay also found the dissection process, which had the kids using tweezers, a large toothpick-like tool and a magnifying glass to search for bones, interesting.

“I can’t smell anything,” he said of the pieces of fur and bone before him. “I found two jaws.”

Nearby, Samuel Simon boasted that he found 11 rodent bones, including a back leg of a rodent.

The activity covered the nature portion of the camp. After a good handwashing and a little snack, they moved on to a project focusing on motion by making simple machines with K’Nex kits.

The STEM Camp was offered free of charge by University of Minnesota Extension/Nobles County 4-H as part of an initiative to educate youths about science, technology, engineering and math.

Katie Klosterbuer, Nobles County 4-H Program Coordinator, said the two-day camp is the first gathering in what will become a STEM-focused 4-H club within the county.

“We’re going to try to keep providing learning opportunities for them,” Klosterbuer said of the 21 boys and girls who participated in the camp. The goal of the project-based club will be to spark and maintain interest in science and nature and technology.

About seven months ago, Nobles County 4-H received a University of Minnesota grant to hire two individuals to provide 4-H STEM programming. Jessica Velasco and Vilai Khanya, who already worked with youths in an afterschool program in the Worthington school district, were hired to lead activities and coordinate the STEM camp. 

“I wanted to show the kids that STEM — we use it every day,” Velasco said. “You always hear parents saying they want their kid to be a doctor or a lawyer, but a lot of these kids don’t even have the opportunity to know what that looks like.”

On Wednesday, the first day of the camp, Velasco had campers develop a list of things that are related to science, technology, engineering and math. Once things like grass, water and park benches were mentioned, the list continued to grow and ideas for potential careers began to take shape.

“I wanted to open up their minds to the possibilities of being in those fields and that it is possible,” Velasco said. “Maybe we’ll have a future marine biologist or scientist — maybe they’ll come one day and build beautiful architecture here in Worthington.”\

Wednesday’s program had campers making their own version of a mechanical hand. First they traced their hand onto a piece of heavy paper, and then attached straws to represent the bones in each finger, the thumb and hand. Once the straws were attached, they used string to attach to the straws to mimic tendons.

“When someone is making a prosthetic arm, they have to take that all into consideration,” Velasco said. “The kids can see how their body works.”

On Thursday, with the owl pellet program, Velasco said each camper had his or her own little science lab.

“Some of them wanted to keep their findings,” she said of the bones and skulls picked from the owl pellets. “That’s exciting to me, when you see a kid have that aha moment where they say, ‘OK, this isn’t bad — I like this.’”

“A lot of kids nowadays don’t really connect science, math, engineering — they overlook a lot of the little things they use every day,” added Khanya. “Hopefully this camp shows them to appreciate the little things that make up the bigger picture of their daily routine that they might not notice.”

For more information about the 4-H STEM program or to join the club, contact Klosterbuer at 295-5313.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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