Usually, unwrapped chocolate disappears quickly.
However, eating the treat wasn’t immediately on the minds of about 40 students in the Pikes Peak region who were using chocolate to delve into chemistry, biology and forensics, including determining the DNA fingerprints of different cacao beans.
The students in grades 8 through 12 are attending the Jumpstart STEM Camp: CSI — Chocolate Science Investigation at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs this week.
Most of the students are entering eight or ninth grade, and at least eight area school districts were represented.
Chocolate was the key ingredient in labs and work sessions that covered forensics, thin-film chromatography, spectroscopy, DNA fingerprinting, robotics and cyber sleuthing.
“You got to experience things you normally wouldn’t,” said 14-year-old Kourtney Sellers who will attend Rampart High School. “I’m not a good learner so the hands-on part really helped.”
Students used tools such as microscopes and liquid chromatography equipment in situations that many college students don’t handle until a few years into their coursework.
“The Case of the Recipe Rip-off” focused on solving the fictional disappearance of a prized chocolate recipe. The story including feuding companies, counterfeit candy and even a murder.
“We try to make it fun” said Kathleen Fitzpatrick, programs director for the UCCS Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education. “The objective is to get them excited about math, science, engineering and technology.”
Many of the students said they enjoyed science and math even before the camp.
The difference, they said, was that instead of learning in class from books, they are actually doing experiments.
“We get to use real techniques in a creative way,” said 14-year-old Felina Gentile of Carmel Middle School, who added that she hopes the camp will help improve her critical thinking skills.
Those who participated in the camp will be ahead of their classes, said 12-year-old Brock Girling of Panorama Middle School.
The Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education designed the program with the chemistry and biology departments, and the UCCS Center for Homeland Security. Professors and UCCS students are teaching segments.
Local chocolatiers Patsy’s Candies and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory were part of the story, and students raved about the field trips, where they tasted chocolate and learned how treats are made and packaged.
It’s the third year for this type of camp, but the story is new.
“We designed the story around the science, technology and other things we wanted to teach,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is a snapshot of what professionals do. They found out it’s not all like they see on TV.”
The center does programs throughout the year for students of all ages. There are different stories and different approaches but all are aimed at getting kids engaged.
A variety of sources fund the work of the center, including participation by many students in its programs.
“We’re not trying to make all our kids scientists and engineers,” Fitzpatrick said. “People need to be aware of science and technology even if its not what they’re doing.”
Contact the writer at 636-0162.