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A summer camp on the other side of the world

July 8, 2014

“Argue Like a Scientist” academic summer campBright skies over the NIU campus July 3 provided perfect weather for an afternoon at the races – the solar-powered model car races, that is.

The competition area outside Gable and DuSable halls resounded with happy cheers, mechanical whirs and the clack-clack-clack of plastic wheels against sidewalk as 42 young people launched the cars they built as part of the College of Education’s “Argue Like a Scientist” academic summer camp.

Some cars zoomed faster than others, of course, but that wasn’t the point: It was that the sun can make cars go.

And while the camp explored various forms of alternative energy and mandated debates over which is best, there was no “argument” over its crowning achievement: Twenty-six of the participants came from Taiwan to learn not only about science but to make friends in the United States while bridging and celebrating cultural differences.

“This is my first time coming to America. I’m very happy,” says Yini Wu, 12, a visitor from the National University of Tainan’s Affiliated Elementary School.

“I’m practicing English to lots of American children,” adds her 12-year-old classmate, Peter Hsu, “and I’m learning lots of things.”

Pi-Sui Hsu

Pi-Sui Hsu

Organizers Pi-Sui Hsu, of the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA), and Margot Van Dyke, an ETRA alumna and winner of a 2014 Golden Apple, want the children to feed their curiosity about science.

Lessons of biomass, geothermal, hydrogen, nuclear, solar and wind came to life through camp activities such as visits to an ethanol plant and a wind turbine farm. Meanwhile, argumentation – in this case, lively debates over which alternative energy their native countries should adopt – is a key component of the Next Generation Science Standards.

“The United States uses more alternative energies than Taiwan, but Taiwan is moving in that direction,” says Van Dyke, who teaches seventh-grade science at O’Neill Middle School in Downers Grove. “I hope we’ve given them something to think about when they go home.”

“We want them to walk away with an interest in science,” adds Hsu, a native of Taiwan, “and open to pursuing study of alternative energy in the future.”

Hsu originated this concept in 2012 with an NIU Great Journeys Assistantship Award worth $14,799, which enabled her to study computer-assisted collaborative argumentation of science projects between students here and at the National University of Tainan’s Affiliated Elementary School.

But the time difference forced the children in Taiwan to return to their classroom at night, prompting Hsu to invite students to NIU for the summer camp and face-to-face interaction.

“Argue Like a Scientist” academic summer camp

Meg Van Dkye and an “Argue Like a Scientist” camper cheer on a solar-powered car.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the students arrived June 26.

They will depart July 17 after enjoying two more weeks of the summer camps of their choice as well as trips to amusement parks, local farms and Chicago cultural attractions, some American “big box store” shopping, a Chicago White Sox game and a traditional Fourth of July experience complete with a picnic and fireworks.

Because children in Taiwan begin learning English as early as third-grade, language poses no obstacles as they sit alongside their peers from DeKalb County.

“They mingle very well,” Van Dyke says. “They play together. They learn together.”

“It really benefits them to see American life, to interact and make friends with American kids, to understand cultural differences and sharpen their English,” Hsu adds. “It might spark their interest to come here for future studies.”

Yini Wu is already following that path, knowing weeks in advance what she’ll tell her friends back home about her trip to Illinois: “Come to America,” she says, “and NIU.”