Summer vacation may signal a break from education for some students, but budding scientists in south Texas recently opted to spend some time learning at the Karnes County Eagle Ford Energy Camp.
Designed to spark an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – known as the “STEM” subjects – the camp was offered free to area students. The 29 attendees, all nominated by their teachers, spent the week studying energy sources: solar, wind, water, and oil & gas. The camp was funded by ConocoPhillips and 3 other companies that operate in the region. Additionally, teachers who conducted the camp were graduates of the NEED Project workshops designed to help teachers educate students on a wide range of topics including energy conservation and alternative energy sources.
“There are so many benefits to getting kids interested in science and energy,” said Glynis Holm Straus, Eagle Ford Community Relations advisor, noting that interest at such a young age can impact future career choices.
The young scientists, who were all clad in white lab coats, spent the week learning about energy from guest speakers who shared their knowledge and experience. Each morning they were introduced to a new person working from the energy industry, learning first-hand about potential career paths and the skills and education required for each.
They also enjoyed perusing a hands-on mobile science museum and conducted numerous experiments pertaining to energy.
“A fracking demonstration involved injecting chocolate syrup into the cake so students could see how the fluid would behave in a porous solid,” offered Jo Ann Gutierrez, Karnes City ISD Director of Curriculum and Special Programs.
Watching the syrup filter through the cake gave students insight into the process of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, that involves creating fissures in rock to improve the mobility of hydrocarbons trapped in dense rock formations.
Another experiment – “Getting Oil Out” – involved joining a number of straws end-to-end to reach chocolate milk in a cup. Students experimented: moving, removing and adding straws as they searched for the most effective way to drink the milk from afar.
Cupcakes with colored layers served as a model of the earth; students were challenged to reach and extract samples from the desired layer.
Though the experiments had a sweet side, there was serious science behind the skills performed, noted Jeanette Winn, Karnes City Independent School District superintendent.
“Even the kids who have family members in the industry hadn’t been exposed to the technical side, and didn’t really understand energy sources,” said Winn.
Karnes City sits amid an area that has experienced tremendous growth due to thriving oil and gas extraction and production. For the school district, the boom means an increase in revenue. For many families, the Eagle Ford Shale discovery and its development means access to better jobs and an improved quality of life. Such growth also poses challenges, however. Schools grapple to address the needs of students whose families frequently move due to job changes; attracting and retaining skilled teachers and staff is also challenging. There are currently about 13,000 full-time jobs in the Eagle Ford Shale and a University of Texas at San Antonio study projects that number to increase to 70,000 workers by 2020.
The idea for the camp began in workshops held by the Karnes City ISD educational foundation. With the goal of sparking and fueling interest in the STEM subjects, the camp organizers also set out to ensure that students learned about the energy industry and the various roles within it. Students from all 4 of the school districts in Karnes County attended the camp.
Educating the educators was a surprise benefit.
“The teachers said they learned a lot too. And that was something that we didn’t expect,” said Winn.