Camp gives students hands-on experience in variety of scientific fields

Camp gives students hands-on experience in variety of scientific fields

URBANA — For the record, cardinals do not enjoy being snared in a net and held by humans.

Mama cardinal made that very clear Tuesday as she unwittingly took part in a field biology demonstration at the first-ever Prairie Research Institute science camp.

She squawked, flapped and pecked at campers' hands as ornithologist Tara Beveroth showed them how to measure and band a bird before releasing it back into the wilds of Busey Woods.

"You've got an awesome bite," commented Patty Dickerson, an artist at the Illinois Natural History Survey.

The new weeklong day camp — open to rising high school juniors, seniors and new graduates — offers hands-on experience in the five scientific areas covered by the University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute — geology, archaeology, biological sciences, water science and sustainable technology. The institute is home to the state's five state scientific surveys — the Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Archaeological Survey, Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois State Water Survey and Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.

Students are working with institute scientists on research activities in the lab and in the field — making biofuels to run a go-cart, banding birds, and taking soil and water samples, among other things. Students spend one day at each of the surveys.

It's a great opportunity to try out multiple fields of science, said Nancy Holm, camp director and assistant director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.

"It's not just engineering," said Kirsten Hope Walker, environmental education specialist for the technology center. "It's a broad spectrum of science."

That's what attracted University High School student Josh Meling, 16, of Champaign, who likes science but isn't sure which direction he will go. He also enrolled in an I-STEM camp project for high school students this summer, studying "springtail" bugs, "so I can experience science in the real setting."

Aspiring biologist Kaitie Wildman, 17, of Atwood-Hammond High School said, "I figured I'd get a little bit of everything."

"It's not something you get to do every day," she added. "I'm having a lot of fun. I like the way we're outside and moving around."

On Tuesday, the campers visited the Anita Purves Nature Center and Busey Woods, where nets were set up to catch birds for banding. The students caught two catbirds and the cardinal, which was in its molting stage.

Beveroth, avian field specialist at the Natural History Survey, measured the cardinal's wings and bones before banding it and allowing it to be released. It flew quickly to a nearby tree, where it gave a few tweets and fluffed its feathers.

The banding allows scientists to track the birds' migration patterns, habitat use and longevity, said Jen Mui, coordinator of education and outreach for the Natural History Survey. Each band has a unique identifying number and contact information, so if someone finds the bird they can call the U.S. Geological Survey and give its location.

"Then you know where it went. Sometimes you find it about 1,000 miles from where it was," said Mui, whose ringtone is the call of the great tree frog.

Beveroth is conducting a separate study on long-distance bird migration using radio towers that track signals from a special beacon on the band, Mui said.

The bands used Tuesday didn't have beacons, but Beveroth showed students how to use the telemetry equipment. After Dickerson hid a transmitter in the woods, student Daniel Stelzer, 16, of Urbana tracked it with an antenna, listening intently on a hand-held radio for the signal. It wasn't easy — another real-life lesson, Mui said, as animals don't usually stand still while you track them.

This year's camp drew 12 students from eight area high schools, and Holm said the hope is to expand it next year. The cost is $250 for the week.

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