BLOOMINGTON — While many elementary school children aren't sure what they want to be when they grow up, 11-year-old Roshan Prakash of Bloomington thinks he has it figured out.
“I plan to double major in physics and chemistry,” he said in a break between classes at Illinois Wesleyan University's Young Scientists camp.
He is among 32 students entering sixth to eighth grade participating in the camp, which is part of the IWU Young Scholars camp program. An additional 15 students entering fourth and fifth grade are taking part in a "Myth Busters" science camp.
Students are performing experiments and doing other hands-on activities, covering a wide range of subjects: making and analyzing biodiesel fuel; designing and creating objects with a 3-D printer; researching the impact of pollutants on crayfish; and even making cookies.
"I like science a lot," said Akhila Mattapalli, 11, of Normal. "You can be curious."
This is the first time IWU has offered such a camp.
Brenda Wernick, the camp program director, said, “I wasn't sure we could even fill the class.”
Instead, there was a waiting list for the Young Scientists camp.
Many of the young participants are like Roshan, Akhila and Cassie Parent, 13, of Bloomington, who already had an interest in science.
“I look for opportunities outside of school to learn,” said Cassie, who is considering a career as a chemical engineer but also likes writing.
Others are like Michael Averbeck of Bloomington, who likes to play video games.
“This is outside of his comfort zone,” said his stepmother, Kari Averbeck. “I think that this sparked an interest in things he didn't even know existed.”
Michael stayed after one day's session to learn more about a gecko in class.
“It turns out this is really not much different from playing video games,” he said. “You get to do a lot of hands-on stuff.”
The camp grew out of a lunch conversation with Wernick's husband, IWU physics professor Gabe Spalding, and their friend, Cheryl Springwood, who teaches at McLean County Unit 5's Evans Junior High School.
“There are some great programs in the community,” Wernick said, but they were mainly aimed at younger students and few had a broad-based science focus.
One goal is to help students draw connections between different fields, Spalding said. Wernick called it the "liberal arts perspective" of science.
The camp has a mixture of IWU professors and certified K-12 classroom teachers.
Sean Mullins, who taught science at Chiddix and Evans junior highs before becoming Unit 5's technology coordinator, is among the camp's instructors.
He said one of the things that struck him was how the students came from different parts of the community and different schools, “but they all connected with each other because they all are of a like mind.”
"For the first year, we've capped enrollment," Spalding said. "We want to have small enough groups. It gives us flexibility."
The students rotate between session in small groups, using laboratory equipment, including a scanning electron microscope, automatic stirrers, precise measuring instruments and a mass spectrometer.
Becky Roesner, chairwoman of IWU's chemistry department, made sure each student had a chance to perform a task as they analyzed a sample of biodiesel fuel students made in an earlier class.
Students aren't the only ones learning.
"As a teacher I'm most amazed by the learning opportunities this provides for me to be learning from professors across disciplines who are experts in their fields," Springwood said.
On Thursday, the final day of the two-week camp, students will make presentations about their research in a program patterned after IWU's annual John Wesley Powell Student Research Conference.
Even though camp ends soon, Mansi Shah, 11, of Bloomington said, "I'll just keep exploring about science."
Based on the success of this year's camp, Wernick and Spalding expect the camp to be offered again next year.