Science is a new emphasis of summer camp for children who are disabled or from disadvantaged backgrounds
About 15 years ago, University at Buffalo chemistry professor Joseph Gardella and his wife sent their daughter, Claire, who is physically disabled and cannot speak, to a summer camp at Cradle Beach in Angola.
The experience helped Claire become more independent. She attended for three summers and made lasting friends. She got support from counselors. She was shy before Cradle Beach; now she is highly opinionated.
Today, the camp - with help from Gardella and other local educators - is doing even more to help children like Claire find their place in the world.
Cradle Beach is adding science as a focus of its summer program, which hosts five 7-to-10-day sessions from June to August.
The camp has hired a full-time science instructor, and children get to choose from activities that include a fish dissection and an "Adaptation Auction," where campers use "Monopoly" money to buy adaptations like a horn, claws or camouflage to build a fictional creature suited for life on Cradle Beach.
Campers also get to take part in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sleep-out that features telescopes and stargazing, along with a lesson explaining the science of making fire without a match.
A growing partnership
The push to enhance science programming began about two years ago after Gardella joined the nonprofit organization's board.
He connected Cradle Beach with a SUNY Buffalo State team, led by associate professor of earth sciences and science education Cathy Lange, that helped develop hands-on STEM projects for campers, including many of this year's sleep-out activities.
Many activities developed by Buffalo State faculty and students were built on the idea of campers becoming "scientists for a day." Staff from the Buffalo Museum of Science supported the program by designing STEM activities and providing hands-on resources Cradle Beachers loved.
A science education program Gardella coordinates also has started working with Cradle Beach.
Called the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP), the National Science Foundation-funded program works to improve science education for students in Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) and is led by UB, BPS, Buffalo State and the science museum.
This summer, ISEP is helping to fund STEM instruction at Cradle Beach and will send 120 BPS students to the camp for 10-day sessions where they'll get to take part in the hands-on science ISEP is all about.
"My wife and I saw not only what Cradle Beach did for our daughter, but the effect it has on campers and counselors, and the loyalty people have as a result of their experiences," said Gardella, SUNY distinguished professor and John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry in UB's College of Arts and Sciences. "If we could help get more hands-on science education for kids there during the summer, they would be doing science in a place where they're having an enjoyable experience. I think that is an exciting legacy."
Helping children find their way in the world - through science
Cradle Beach is a place where children who are disabled or from disadvantaged backgrounds play and learn together. They take steps toward independence and open their minds to new possibilities of what the world has to offer for their future.
Science fits in perfectly with these themes: It introduces kids to new ideas and opportunities.
"I would say there are many reasons for focusing on STEM, but the one that stands out the most is that we know that the careers for many of these kids are going to be in the STEM field," said Cheri Alvarez, chief operating officer of Cradle Beach. "In an increasingly technology-based world, enhanced STEM education is vital to their futures and to the economic viability of our region."
"Many kids get off the bus at camp, look at Lake Erie and point to it and say, 'Oh, that's the ocean,' because they don't know about the geography of the region and what things are like outside of the city of Buffalo," Alvarez said. "We are teaching them to be more aware of the greater world that's around them. These kids come to Cradle Beach and they are learning by living."
Several of the STEM activities - like the "Adaptation Auction" and the fish dissection - encourage students to experience and think about the Great Lakes and the ecosystem of Western New York.
As they learn at camp, the children come to see science as fun. It builds their confidence, which is important, given many of the children Cradle Beach serves are women or minorities who are underrepresented today in STEM fields, Alvarez said.