LA PINE — A typical summer camp might have cabins, canoeing and campfires, but a group of local teachers and graduate students are using summer camps to teach kids math and science skills using kid-friendly activities.

Funded by the Sisters-based Roundhouse Foundation, the Oregon State University-Cascades’ Masters of Arts in Teaching program is sending its graduate students, as well as teachers who graduated from OSU-Cascades, to lead free STEM-themed summer camps for middle schoolers. The activities teach math, science and engineering skills using Popsicle sticks, dry ice and marshmallows.

The Roundhouse Foundation has funded a variety of Central Oregon projects in the arts, environment, education and social services.

OSU-Cascades professor and camp organizer Mike Giamellaro founded the camp six years ago, he said.

“The overall goal is just to engage them, to make (math and science) fun, to make it exciting,” Giamellaro said of the middle school campers.

This week, 32 middle schoolers learned how to mitigate natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions at La Pine Middle School. Two weeks ago, students in Sisters learned similar skills, and the camp will travel to Prineville next week and Bend the week after.

La Pine Middle School Principal Robi Phinney said offering academic programs to kids in small towns like La Pine was crucial during the summer, where there are less educational activities and camps available compared to larger cities.

Molly Honea, who teaches sixth-grade science at La Pine Middle School, agreed with her principal.

“Being able to get dropped off here instead (of sitting at home) and do something academic for two full days and use their brains is huge,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, kids were participating in natural disaster-themed activities.

One group was creating “buildings” out of marshmallows, toothpicks, metal washers and string in an attempt to make them earthquake-proof. Another group was outside, shaping the dirt around their Popsicle-stick cities to make them flood-resilient.

La Pine seventh-grader Jacob Sechler said he was skeptical at first about the camp, but quickly changed his mind once he arrived.

“I thought it would be a little bit boring, but it’s fun,” he said.

Cameron Rosenfield, who teaches chemistry and physics at Madras High School, said making STEM skills fun was intentional.

“When we can make education and the content that we’re delivering more applicable, like in a STEM camp like this, then the students really do bring those discrete skills into the classroom,” he said. “Being able to communicate, being able to raise their hand, feeling confident and safe in the classroom, that’s what they get from more exposure over the summer.”

The camps give learning experience not only to the middle schoolers, but also the OSU-Cascades grad students. This is potentially their first time instructing students.

Jake Oelrich, who said he plans on becoming a math teacher, said teaching in front of kids was a blast.

“We’ve been actually talking about this day for weeks, a month probably. Now … we’re in the classroom, and we’re meeting these kids,” he said. “It’s really fun to see it in action.”

Fellow grad student Edith Vazquez said she was hoping to get middle schoolers excited about math.

“Everyone’s like, ‘I hate math,’ but it’s so great,” she said. “Getting to show the students how it applies to them in their lives, how they use it every day and how it’s relevant is something that I want to share.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854;