Girls! At Science Camp.

Brenna (12yo) uses strike magnesium flint to light a campfire.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a family friend whose 12 year old daughter was attending a local science camp. A story had just run in our local paper, a cute little telling of the experience the 15 campers were having at Survival Science Camp being held at our local nature preserve. There was just one problem, and it was a BIG one. The article made no mention of ANY of the girls attending the camp. One third of the campers were girls, yet except for a pair of legs in an accompanying photo, you’d never know it. I’m sure it was just an oversight. Thing is, I get a little bothered when girls are overlooked. So here’s Pigtail Pals’ version of Survival Science Camp….

I arrived at Janesville’s Outdoor Science Lab feeling like a girl again. The Survival Science Campers that I was here to interview were all around twelve years old, which was the age I began working as a camp counselor, spending my next six summers at a day camp settled into the Wisconsin prairie. There are few places more pretty than Wisconsin in the summertime, and running around in the woods and stomping through rivers was a great way to come of age.

As I approached the group of parents and campers circled around the fire pit, I had to chuckle as I observed Brenna, 12 year old extraordinaire, light the camp fire with strike magnesium flint. In part, it was humorous because Brenna is the daughter of a firefighter, but also because as she did so, and the embers started smoking and then crackling, one of the boys raised his arms victoriously in the air and said “WE HAVE FIRE! We are cavemen!”. Brenna looked up at him and rolled her eyes, and I couldn’t resist. “Caveman, I think by ‘we’ you mean ‘she’. She has fire. Just sayin.”

Brenna cooks me breakfast - a chocolate chip banana split.

Brenna came over and gave me a hug and I started jumping up and down telling her how excited I was to hang out with her for the morning. I’m sure Christianne Anamanpour would have kept her cool, but I was embedded with science-loving middle school girls offering to cook me a breakfast of chocolate chip banana splits and s’mores.

“So Brenna, how did it feel to light our fire with a group of people watching you. You didn’t even use matches!” -Me

“I was happy. I’ve never done that before. I’m not allowed to light fires.” -Brenna

“What has been the coolest part about this week?” -Me

“Definitely lighting fires with flint. And finding people when they got lost. We learned a lot of new things and pushed our limits.” -Brenna

One happy sigh from me and a tummy full of camp fire melted chocolatey-goodness later, we walked around the trails so Brenna and her friends could tell me more about this week and what they learned from their fearless survival instructors, Neil Boys and David Hintze, science teachers at Parker High School here in Janesville and creators of this co-ed camp experience for junior high students.

The girls told me all about making sun dials and cooking food with natural heat and using GPS and compasses to find lost hikers in the woods. I heard all about boiling oak bark and plantain juice as natural remedies for wounds. And somehow they talked me into eating wild berries that was assured me were not poisonous.

Sun dial made by campers, which Brenna said was the most difficult project.

“So Brenna, tell me what you would say to younger girls who want to come to science camp.” -Me

“I think it is really fun. There is a lot to learn, about plants and animals and wild berries. We cooked hot dogs using tin foil and a solar cooker we made.” -Brenna

“How long did that take?” -Me

“About an hour and a half. But they were so so good.” -Brenna

“I don’t know, B. That’s a really long time to wait for a dog.” -Me

“Well, I would tell girls it is important to get outside and enjoy nature and learn about nature. Its not all about make-up and stuff. There are really neat things you can do here.” -Brenna

“Tell me more.” -Me

“Well, you can be free. You can be open. You can just be yourself. You can do anything here.”

Replica pioneer log cabin we would have called home 200 years ago.

Oh, that Brenna. See why I was jumping up and down? Next I spoke with the teachers in charge of the week, Mr. Boys and Mr. Hintze, and asked them about their thoughts on girls getting involved in math and science. Both are fathers of daughters, and they agreed that feeling comfortable in science and math can build a girl’s self esteem. The teachers had used multiple disciplines in science to teach the kids about water purification, fire building, shelter construction, and navigation. I asked them how it went to have a co-ed group of junior high aged kids, and Mr.Hintze said, “Oh, it was great. They were one big happy family. They were cooperating, both had great ideas. They would problem solve together and work together. The girls definitely spoke up when they needed to.” Mr. Boys agreed, saying that is was important for girls to feel comfortable in nature, and in taking leadership roles. He said he was proud of the girls and how they handled themselves during the week.

Brenna then led her mom and I down a winding trail in the woods to a stream. Having bad ankles, all of the rocks on the steep hill Brenna forget to mention made me a bit nervous, but I quipped she could just boil some plantain lace for me and I’d be fine. “Oh no,” Brenna sad, “That’s only for open wounds. If you sprain your ankle you’re on your own.”

Luckily, my weak ankles and I made it to the bottom in one piece. We approached the stream and Brenna wasted no time chucking off her shoes and jumping in. A few moments later one of her girlfriends came tearing across the bridge, yelling at her, “Wait! Don’t have fun without me!” as she tossed her shoes on the bank and jumped in after Brenna. Oh, happy sigh. Twelve year old girls acting like twelve year old girls, just as they should be.

Brenna and Riley examining the stream.

As if on cue, this camper walked up with a large frog in her hand

Trail down to stream.

While talking about this post on twitter, a mom from our Pigtail Pals community sent me an email with her daughter Hannah’s thoughts on science camp taking place in another state.

Here’s what Hannah had to say:

Chemistry…I felt like a scientist because I had a mask and gloves. We put a bunch of stuff in the cup and mine exploded! It was my favourite!

Biology…We dissected the stuff that owls’ throw up. There were mice bones and hair in there and stuff. It was disgusting because it smelled really bad.

Anatomy… The professor brought in a skeleton and we touched real bone. She was very interesting.

Microscopes… Very cool! She (the professor) had our names on there the first day as a surprise. Looking at the germs was really interesting because they were breathing and alive. One had a whole bunch of points, and one had like a hair moving around. We got them from the fish tank. They kind of freaked me out!

Astronomy… I loved the star dome. They talked all about the constellations and it was dark so you could see all of them.  I got dizzy at part of it because I couldn’t see. One of the teachers fell asleep! (a university student lol)

My least favourite part was the nature walk because it was too hot. Everything else was fun.

And that my friends, is how girls do science camp.

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