Yerkes relaunches youth astronomy camp

      “It’s a fun experience where kids can just have fun and they’re learning… It starts their dreams out in what they want to do.” – Rebecca Russell, YAAYS coordinator

Rebecca Russell, organizer of the YAAYS program, explains to Cayden Wittrock (from left), Sean Ahler of and Ethan Hay, all of Elkhorn, how the group of campers will use the big colorful balls to represent the size of earth as they line them up to mimic the diameter of the sun in comparison. (Photo by Chelsey Hinsenkamp)

By Chelsey Hinsenkamp

SLN Staff 

Every child, perhaps only briefly, dreams of flying to the moon in an astronaut suit, or experiencing zero gravity in a rocket ship orbiting the earth; and at some point in life, everyone

wonders, what is out there?

Only a fraction of people ever get the chance to actually experience outer space first-hand, but through Yerkes Astrophysics Academy for Young Scientists, or YAAYS, kids can at least get a taste for that ever-mysterious final frontier.

YAAYS was started at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay in 2007 with money from a National Science Fund grant.

The program was a success, drawing hundreds of students from several different participating schools, according to Yerkes officials. But money from the grant ran out after two seasons of the camp and YAAYS died with it.

Recent Elkhorn Area High School graduate Rebecca Russell was one of the students who participated in the program during its infancy and she said she was so inspired by the camp that she has remained involved with Yerkes Observatory ever since.

“When I would go to camp it would be kind of a special thing … It was kind of like you were a VIP,” Russell said of her experience with YAAYS.

Currently Russell is a full-time intern at the observatory working with professionals on several astronomy and engineering related projects.

She pitched the idea of breathing life back into the YAAYS program to her supervisor Vivian Hoette, coordinator of educational programs. The idea was tossed around a bit with several other Yerkes administrators and was initially met with some resistance.

The observatory had been planning on hosting a Girls Exploring Energy program, but after the signup process flopped, Russell stepped up and repitched the program.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we do YAAYS? I’ll organize it, this is the description and this is how much it’ll cost for each kid’” Russell recounted.

She remained persistent and soon convinced Hoette and the others that she would be able to take care of everything.

“I put it together, I made the curriculum, and it actually took a lot of effort to make sure people knew about the camp.”

Russell said she created fliers and distributed them to area schools to be passed on to interested students, in addition to spreading the news by good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

According to Russell, the camp filled up fast, reaching its max capacity of 40 students with almost 20 other interested students who had to be turned away.

This year’s camp was a four-day commitment open to all fifth through seventh graders. The camp was from 1 to 5 p.m. each day at a cost of $75 per student, which covered all the necessary supplies for each day’s activities.

Russell said she strived to suit all levels of interest and knowledge when creating the curriculum.

“In the beginning YAAYS was a lot of heavy material and curriculum … When I put the curriculum together I geared it toward kids of all levels,” she explained.

This year’s curriculum included various themed activities, such as those related to the electromagnetic spectrum, which as Russell explains, “is just a big word for the rainbow.”

Campers were able to see HAWC – a High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera – an actual scientific instrument being built by NASA engineers in the basement of Yerkes.

Students built their own Galileo scopes, which they got to take home and use. They learned how astronomers can use telescopes located across the world remotely and how the varying gravity on other planets affects weight.

Russell said her favorite activity involved a water curtain, which is something firefighters put between houses to stop a fire from spreading from one house to the next.

“It’s like a big sprinkler,” Russell explained. “The point of it was to see the rainbow … Some of (the kids) got wet and played in it. That was really cool.”

The camp also hosted a “Star Party” on Tuesday night where campers and their families were invited back at dusk to stargaze through the dozens of telescopes spread across Yerkes large back lawn.

On top of everything else, the students got a chance to learn directly from two astronomers from the University of Chicago including Dr. Richard G. Kron and Dr. Doyal Harper, who spoke to the campers on the last day of YAAYS.

Russell said the success of this summer’s camp guarantees YAAYS return in 2013. She said she hopes to make it even bigger and better next year, expanding the activities, time span and age range.

Russell said her goal for the next camp is to break it down into three different age ranges including third through fourth grade, fifth through sixth and seventh through eighth. She also hopes to get more high school students involved on the teaching end of things.

Russell wrapped up this summer’s program feeling good about the outcome saying, “It was a good experience to be able to put together a program; people don’t realize how much you can learn from these kids.”

She said the experience the children gain is one that most campers will carry with them forever.

“It’s a fun experience where kids can just have fun and they’re learning … It starts their dreams out in what they want to do,” she said.

Someday, years down the road, Russell said she hopes the camp might grow into something with the ability to offer overnight accommodations making nightly “Star Parties” a possibility while allowing more time to pack in “astronomical” amounts of celestial knowledge.

For more information on Yerkes Observatory, 373 W. Geneva St., Williams Bay, or the YAAYS program, visit or call (262) 245-5555.

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