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Clarkson Roller Coaster Camp engenders spirit of collaboration for north country high schoolers

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POTSDAM — Local high school students were getting a taste of success at Clarkson’s ninth-annual Roller Coaster Camp this past week as they conducted experiments indoors and out with college mentors on Wednesday.

The weeklong camp, which rans from Monday through Friday, was for high school students from across St. Lawrence County. Forty-five students, who were arranged into six companies, attended along with their teachers to tackle the challenge of designing a roller coaster.

To help them accomplish their task,one day featured activities that focused on conducting research according to the scientific method. College mentors running activities posed questions to students, helping them experiment, draw conclusions and evaluate whether or not the experiments performed were reasonable.

A coaster simulator inside the university’s Technology Advancement Center allowed students to choose six to nine segments or “blocks” of track and design a course before experiencing a whirling ride meant to imitate the German roller coaster Eurostar. Earlier in the week, students rode the simulator with accelerometers to gather data that they could later analyze and use to inform their coaster designs.

Kathleen R. Fowler, Clarkson associate professor of mathematics, explained that experiencing the ride helps them connect with and apply the calculations they make on paper beforehand.

Hands-on opportunities like the ones available at the camp are largely unavailable to students in St. Lawrence County, as schools struggle to provide the resources necessary for programs like these. Clarkson seeks to alleviate that and the geographical isolation students face by holding the camp each year and by involving high schoolers in the university’s state Education Department funded Science and Technology Entry Program. For 150 students, the STEP program extends camp learning into the academic year with a monthly visit to Clarkson’s campus.

“It’s an awesome experience for the students to be exposed to this environment, and see the opportunities that are here for them,” said Bonnie M. Bates, a teacher’s aide at Governeur high school. “The collaboration between the Clarkson students and the students that we bring to camp is amazing.”

Mrs. Bates explained that for some students present, interacting with college students is a first, and due in part to the ready acceptance they get from mentors it is a rewarding experience.

She said that those who attended the camp last year have seen their grades improve.

Elijah A. Morrow, who took physics this year at the Ogdensburg Free Academy, was grateful for the repetition and practice he gets from camp.

“We do so much physics here that when we are presented with physics in school, it’s not as difficult straight off,” he said.

Savannah M. Harris, also a student at OFA, is hoping to prepare herself for geometry class this fall.

“It’s good to learn outside of school because it will prepare me for next year,” she said.

Mentors at camp this year include pre-freshman all the way up to graduate students.

Matthew B. Fowler, a second-year Clarkson graduate student in the math Ph.D. program, said his desire is to help campers experience a “moment of success” to help them become passionate about careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Being an engineer isn’t an impossible leap; it’s something they’re more than capable of doing,” he said.

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