Originally published August 1, 2012 at 6 a.m., updated August 3, 2012 at 3:48 p.m.
SAN DIEGO The 37 high schoolers boarding the Fisherman III in Point Loma were among hundreds of students across the country participating in rigorous science camps this summer.
One San Diego summer camp opens the door to science courses for Latin American students by offering classes in Spanish.
Because these students come from 15 countries in Latin America, there was one thing that made their camp different from the others.
“There’s a lot of science camps in the United States but most of them are in English. So our idea was that if we make this in Spanish, then we could have kids from every economic strata, not just like separating the ones that spoke English or not," said Denisse Fernandez, co-director of the Summer Science and Innovation Camp for the Institute of the Americas at UC San Diego. "So that’s what we try to fulfill and you actually see it.”
Most of the kids were chosen for the camp by their country’s American embassy. They had to submit essays and go through interviews. Embassy sponsorships and scholarships mean none of the students had to pay for the two-week camp. And the campers appreciate how rare an opportunity this is.
“First, when they told me that I got an interview I couldn’t believe it. I was happy. And then, when they say that I won – it was awesome, really,” said Analia Vazquez, who is from Paraguay.
Carlos Alberto Saenz Ramirez said in his home country of Colombia they say "there are opportunities that only present themselves once in your life." Then he added, "And this is one of them.”
Patricia Moore is an instructor who worked with the students though their two-week stay in San Diego. She said the students ask more questions than many of those in the community college classes she teaches during the school year.
“Can you imagine?" she said. "Some of the students have never been in the ocean. So the first time they get in the ocean, they get a sea star, for example. And you grab the sea star and you see the face of this student looking at the sea star for the very first time. To me, that’s all. It’s payday.”
Jhayline Mamanipoma, a 14-year-old from Bolivia, was one of those students who was blown away by her introduction to the Pacific Ocean.
“My country doesn’t have ocean access, so the first time I saw it was the most beautiful. We saw it from a dock – it was beautiful,” she said.
When the boat pulls up to the bait docks in San Diego Bay, it’s clear that the students are here for the science. The crew scoops up muck from the bay floor for them to examine and they all jostle to get closer.
Ramirez said the boat ride and visiting tide pools and the aquarium have just made him want to learn more about the ocean.
“It’s amazing for us – and there’s so much ocean here for discovering what we have – all of these plants here, the biodiversity that changes from one area to another. There’s so much to keep learning, of course,” he said.
Access to diverse marine environments is just one of the things that makes San Diego an ideal place to introduce students to a variety of scientific topics.
“We’ve got great science scholars here, who love to talk with students," said Lee Tablewski, the camp's other co-director. "We have the wonderful ocean that’s around us that gives us a great classroom and we have great resources like Qualcomm and the San Diego Zoo that really embrace us and invite us in to talk about innovation and to talk about things like the California Condor.”
The two-week camp was about more than fun trips. Students worked in small groups back in labs at UC San Diego on research and innovation projects. Vazquez said her group is designing a portable blood test.
“It’s quick, it’s efficient and we’re working on that," she said. "And for science we’re doing an experiment on water of the different countries and we are analyzing the bacteria named coliform.”
They also met researchers who told students about their work and careers. Mamanipoma said one of those talks, about memory and the brain, had her reconsidering what she wants to do with her life.
“Just everything they said – that everything is connected in one space," she said. "The brain is a very big container. So, these words made me change and say, 'this is what I want to learn.' And how the brain is still, we don’t understand very well all of the ways it works. I said, 'I want to discover one of the ways it works.'”
Moore said the camp can be one small but important step down the road to a career studying the brain, or in any other scientific area.
“I tell them, it’s important, what you are going to learn," she said. "But more important is the relationships that you are having here, the connections with the people that live here. Because you never know. You are going to go back to your country and you need references, for example, so you can contact us. And by constant communication this is what they are gaining, the communication with the scientific people.”
The program started three years ago. Some of the first campers will start college in a couple of weeks. They’ve emailed the program’s directors to say they’re entering programs like medicine, engineering and astrophysics.
Video by Katie Euphrat