MADISON, Wis. — “It’s goggles, gloves and lab coats right now,” Dan Murphy, outreach coordinator for the Morgridge Institute for Research, shouted, rallying participants in Summer Science Camp at the Institutes for Discovery on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus earlier this week.
There was excitement as campers, all students from high schools in rural Wisconsin, prepared and conducted an experiment testing the effect of medication on cardiac muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Tanner Oyen, a student at Lancaster High School in Grant County in southwestern Wisconsin, about the experiment in which students counted the beats made by stem-cell-derived cardiomyocytes before and after exposing them to verapamil, a calcium channel blocker.
The rural summer science camp, now in its 11th year, has brought more than 400 students from more than 70 high schools to the UW-Madison campus for a taste of what studying — and maybe, someday, working — in a university laboratory would be like.
Its mission is in part the Wisconsin Idea, bringing knowledge developed at UW-Madison to other parts of the state, Murphy said. It’s also an opportunity for “students from rural Wisconsin to know that going to a UW System school is possible for them.”
“And they see scientists not very much older than them model those aspirations,” Murphy said.
Students from 10 state high schools participated in one of two science camps this month: Kickapoo Area School District in Viola; the North Crawford School District in Soldiers Grove; Iola-Scandinavia School District in Iola; Black Hawk School District in South Wayne; Chetek-Weyerhauser School District in Chetek; Lancaster High School; Phillips High School; Bruce High School; Coleman High School; and Hillsboro High School.
The students and their accompanying teachers spend four days on campus, staying in DeJope Residence Hall, and participate in a variety of educational and social activities.
On Wednesday, students heard a talk about how cardiac stem cells are developed and tested for use in medicine from Tim Kamp, a professor and researcher at the School of Medicine and Public Health. After hearing about the sometimes circuitous academic paths of graduate students who led the experiments, students got down to the business of calculating concentrations of verapamil and observing its effect on cardiomyocytes under the microscope.
Students chuckled at the idea of having the kind of equipment — like the bio-safety cabinet that filtered the air around their cell samples and microscopes — at their high schools.
That’s one reason why the summer camp is so educational. “It’s a great opportunity to get to work with new things,” said Emma Peterson of Phillips High School in north central Wisconsin.
Her classmate, Kate Lochner, said the camp is giving her new appreciation for the potential of stem cell use, something she thinks will burgeon in the next few years. “I think that’s going to be really helpful in all fields of research,” said Lochner.
Both girls see science — and UW-Madison — as possibilities in their futures.
“It’s a great school,” said Lochner. “A lot of kids from Phillips end up going here.”
A “lot” percentage-wise can mean just a few students from small schools like Phillips, with an enrollment of 228 this past year.
Aaron Destiche, a middle and high school teacher in the Coleman School District, said the camp makes going to UW-Madison to pursue a career in science “a tangible thing, not something off in the distance.”
About 60 percent of Coleman graduates attend Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in nearby Green Bay, and 20 to 30 percent go on to a four-year college Destiche said. A handful of them, four or six a year, usually attend UW-Madison, he said.
Students on Wednesday noted that the beating of the cells slowed after the introduction of verapamil.
“Does the drug affect the calcium?” asked Annabelle Kolecki, a student at Coleman.
“That’s a good hypothesis,” replied graduate student Angelica de Lourdes, who comes from Puerto Rico.
Kolecki said the experiment energized the learning process. “It’s easier when you are getting hands-on experience,” she said.
“It was really cool to see actual heart cells,” enthused classmate Kaily Klimek.
Both girls were excited about their week on campus. “Being here gives us the chance to try new things,” Klimek said.
The summer camp is free of charge to students and teachers attending, and is supported by several grants, including an endowment established by the family of Kathleen Smith, a former trustee of both the Morgridge Institute and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
It’s hoped that the experience also provides professional development for teachers who accompany their students, Murphy said. To promote experimentation back in the classroom, teachers receive funding of $25 per student they bring to camp to purchase science supplies, he said.
Hillsboro High School teacher Deb Freitag returned this year with a new group of students after the camp was a big hit with those who attended three years ago.
“My students don’t get to work with this kind of equipment or with other students who have the same capabilities and excitement over science,” she remarked. The school in Vernon County in western Wisconsin has about 170 students.
“They were able to become ‘nerds,’ as they put it, and be comfortable about it,” Freitag said.
Students in the camp create posters on what they learn that Freitag displayed in her classroom. “Seeing their names and what they did made them proud of who they are,” she said, and started a buzz about science camp that had other students eager to attend.
Murphy said that camp organizers have just begun surveying students in the years after camp about what affect it had on their educational and career choices to gauge its impact scientifically.
“But we hear anecdotally from teachers that students are coming to UW-Madison because of these experiences,” he said.