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ASU students bring the fun of Camp Sparky to elementary schools

November 29, 2010

Going to college seems a remote possibility for many fifth graders. But a group of ASU students has set out to change their thinking, by bringing the fun of college learning experiences to them.

Six times a semester, about 80 children from Title I elementary schools in the Phoenix area welcome ASU’s Camp Sparky to their classrooms. ASU students plan a daylong set of “day camp” learning activities at a different school every other Friday, bringing the children to the Tempe campus at least once during the semester.

The goal is to expose them to college students and to higher education, inspiring them to have confidence in their future success. More than half of the youngsters participate in federally funded lunch programs, and many have no family members who attended college.

“This is so fun,” giggled one student from Faith North Montessori School as she toured the campus at Barrett, the Honors College, in November.

“I want to come to ASU,” said another, peering at the live snakes in glass cases at the Life Sciences Center.

Eric Beerman, a sophomore in computer science from Cincinnati, is a program coordinator for the camp this semester. He was surprised at how much he enjoyed working with the children when he first volunteered as a freshman, conducting health activities and teaching about the food pyramid and food labels.

Now he relishes contacting schools to set up dates for the camps, recruiting student directors who can choose their own activity theme. Themes range from economics and math to movies, or even pirates. All activities are built around hands-on learning that ties in with their curriculum.

“The kids have a lot of fun, and their teachers tell us how much impact we’re having,” Beerman says. “I grew up knowing I’d go to college. These kids don’t have that example. We always talk to them about their future. We tell them that you don’t have to be rich to go to college.”

Beerman and the majority of the volunteers are enrolled in Barrett, though the organization is open to ASU students campuswide. This fall they hosted camps at Balsz and Jefferson Elementary Schools, and brought groups from two schools to campus.

Camp Sparky was founded about 13 years ago, and it continues to be entirely student-run, winning nine awards from the Student Organization Resource Center, more than any other group.

Vic Diaz was chair of the project in 2001-2002 when he was an ASU student, and when he became a schoolteacher he arranged a Camp Sparky visit to his class. Now an ASU doctoral student in educational leadership and policy studies, he’s enthusiastic about its benefits.

“Camp Sparky enters these kids’ lives at such an important time, when they still have one foot in the childhood realm and can imagine a world full of possibilities,” Diaz says. “It helps them picture themselves as academically successful young people on the path to college.

“What Camp Sparky does so differently from most other groups is that the ASU students present themselves as students as well, on the same level as the kids they work with. There’s a joy and sense of community. Camp Sparky tells kids that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ about who they are and where they come from, and it’s possible to be themselves and be on the path to college.”

Beerman, who has a 4.0 GPA and has minors in chemistry and math, says he likes working with fifth graders because they’re not yet “too cool” to be impressed by the activities.

“At the end of the day they’re singing songs, very enthusiastic. We have a good time, too.”