In 1988, the three Washington Township middle school Science Department Chairs approached then Superintendent Dr. McDaniels with a new idea for science enrichment. Mike Pomerenke, Anne Hair and Frank Williams proposed to engage 190 students in a summer camp experience they hoped would build student engagement and interest in science. With one years’ worth of funding allocated from the School Board, the teachers executed the inaugural year of what would quickly become a staple of the Washington Township summer.
Learning Under the Sun started as two separate, two week sessions with 80 students each session paying $1.00 a day to participate. The students were led by 8 science teachers from around the District, one Counselor from North Central and 10 North Central freshman who served as Teacher Assistant’s, earning high school credit for their help.
From the beginning, the focus of the camp has been hands on experiences that work to deepen students’ understanding of science. Campers have done everything from learning the physics of playing Frisbee to watching open heart surgery being performed on dogs at Purdue University. The naturalist experiences such as swamp stomping and cave exploring have been long standing favorites and in recent years the addition of coding and other technology focused activities have added computer sciences into the mix. There is usually even a little friendly competition to display learned knowledge. This year, students learned about the physics involved with fingerboards and participated in a contest to see who could perform the most complicated tricks.
Through the years, the program has not only had a focus on science, but also inclusion and diversity. In the early 2000’s, then Superintendent Dr. White and the School Board allocated funds to ensure that special education students totaled 20% of those participating. In 2007 through funding from the American Honda Grant and The Advancement Center (then the Washington Township Schools Foundation) it added components to promote Women in Science and add travel to college campuses.
During the last 30 years of LUS, over 5,000 student participants have traveled over 45,000 miles experiencing science ALL OVER Indiana. Each year, the program has 3 bus drivers dedicated to make that level of exploration possible. Fletcher Graham has driven with the program every year since its start, and prides himself on being the lead bus. “I know all the right roads to take and drive as efficiently as possible so the kids get to maximize their time at each experience.” Mr. Graham is able to recount almost all of the incredible trips he has taken with the LUS students over the years and was particularly blown away when he got to see a particle accelerator when down in Bloomington.
Mr. Graham is certainly not the only person in Washington Township to have a long and impactful history with Learning Under the Sun. The Sharp family had all 5 siblings participate in the program every year they were eligible. Two of the sisters, Jonte and Starlette were part of the inaugural year. The women recall how instrumental the science enrichment camp and Mr. Pomerenke were to them and their educational path. Following high school Jonte received a BS in biology and studied cancer biology in graduate school. She went on to become a faculty member at Penn State University with a dual appointment in the Eberly College of Science and the College of Engineering. She will tell you that her early exposure to science mattered.
The program fees for LUS have certainly increased from the initial $1 per day. But LUS has worked hard over the years to keep its cost low and be one of the best values in summer education in Indiana. Even with these efforts, the experience can still be out of reach for some deserving students.
In 2013 Jonte and Starlette provided $2,250 in scholarships to honor their parents, Stephen and Rita Sharp, and support students who might not otherwise have been able to attend the LUS program. The sisters requested the scholarships be directed toward underrepresented minorities, women, and first generation college students to encourage building an appreciation for STEM within these groups.
“We hoped the money would help students have as much fun, and exposure to science as we did. Because exposure to science matters!”
We too are proud to support this incredible camp, because exposure to science, while having fun, definitely matters. Beyond our initial 2007 funding, The Advancement Center has provided an additional 21 Learning Under the Sun scholarships since 2014. We are proud to have this amazing program available to students for the past 30 years and look forward to many more years Learning Under the Sun!