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Las Vegas Memorial Middle School summer ecology research program visits NMSU

LAS CRUCES - During a visit to New Mexico State University, a group of Las Vegas, N.M., youth learned that Lego Blocks are not just children's toys, that playing computer games can be educational and that there are more than 200 varieties of chile.



Las Vegas Memorial Middle School student Charlie Linder tries his hand at riding a Segway personal transporter during a visit to New Mexico State University's College of Engineering. Eleven students from the middle school's summer ecology research program visited five research labs while on campus. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Eleven members of the Las Vegas Memorial Middle School's summer ecology research program were among the many teenagers who visited the Las Cruces campus during the summer to learn about the university.

"We wanted to expose the kids to different kinds of science backgrounds, different kinds of science research programs and different career possibilities in the science field," said Margaret Lewis, Memorial Middle School eighth grade science teacher, who has directed the summer program for 10 years with seventh grade math teacher Nancy Jeffrey.

"Once kids get into middle school, they lose their spark for learning science and math. Through our summer program and our trip to NMSU we hope they maintain an interest in science and math beyond middle school," Lewis said.

During the summer, the students participate in collecting research data on various watershed projects, specifically looking at vegetation sampling and gathering wildlife data with bird counts. They are also helping develop the school's Memorial Middle School Agricultural Science Center's outdoor classroom and nature trail.

"As we support this program, we have looked for ways to layer additional learning opportunities," said Peter Skelton, NMSU faculty member responsible for the university's agricultural science center located at the school. "Visiting NMSU's main campus was an opportunity for the students to get a taste of college and to get them excited about going to NMSU."

The students visited the College of Agriculture and Home Economics' Fabian Garcia Research Center, the College of Engineering Lego Robotics Lab, a biochemical engineering lab, a mechanical engineering computer drafting lab and the NMSU Media Production's Learning Game Lab.

"There are 12 off-campus science centers across the state that this youth science center is modeled after. While we operate at a much smaller scale than the other science centers, we want to expose the students to the different types of research being conducted at the Fabian Garcia Research Center compared to the type of research we are doing at the middle school science center," said Skelton. "It is my hope that they will begin to make the connection between what we are trying to accomplish at the middle school and what researchers are trying to accomplish here."

Danise Coon, program coordinator with the Chile Pepper Institute, gave the students a guided tour of the chile garden where 200 different varieties of chile are grown, including the world's hottest chile Bhut Jolokia. The students were very interested in the various chiles since several varieties are grown at their school's greenhouse.

Sophomore engineering student Chris Remley demonstrated various Lego Robotic models that demonstrated various engineering theories. The students watched as a robot made its way through a maze and blew out a candle's flame. Middle school student Ben Ratzlaff learned how to recalibrate a Lego Robot he designed for a Math, Engineering and Science Achievement competition.

While visiting the College of Engineering, the students learned about the Segway personal transporter, a two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle from civil engineering graduate student Patrick Sisneros, and the students also got an opportunity to ride the vehicle of the future. LVMMS student Charlie Linder declared he wanted a Segway when he graduates from high school.

While a visit to the Learning Game Lab may have looked like a visit to the video arcade, lab director Barbara Chamberlain explained that the lab was where game developers, education researchers and gamers joined in evaluating video games in a think-tank environment.

"The NMSU Learning Games Lab is an exploratory environment where gamers play and evaluate games - all kinds of games, including those designed strictly as entertainment, educational titles, and games in development," Chamberlain said. The students also played a variety of games and learned how video games are created.

"This visit to NMSU was a unique experience for our students," said Jeffery. "Just being on the campus, staying in the dorm and eating in the cafeteria allowed our students to experience the things college students do. Hopefully, it has broadened their horizons."