HERMITAGE — For about an hour a day for three days a week, children can learn about anything from engineering to weather to sound — using only household objects such as rubber bands, toothpicks and Popsicle sticks.
Using such simple items to create experiments with crossbows, catapults or membranophones, the instructor Ralf Urbach — known to his students as Mr. Ralf – works with the students online to help the students create “Oh wow!” moments, which happens to be both the name and the goal of Youngstown’s OH Wow! Roger and Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science and Technology.
“It’s funny, because the kids are using things that they could find in their very own homes, but then they’ll have that ‘oh wow’ moment where they go, ‘I didn’t know I could make that with these,’” he said.
Working with local children from Hermitage, Ralf’s courses are part of the Pioneer Virtual Summer Camp, an online program organized by Ed Chess and Mary Ellen McKendry with the Hermitage park and recreation department, in partnership with OH Wow!
In previous years, the summer rec program was held at local schools or Buhl Park, where students could participate in arts and crafts, as well as recreational activities such as basketball or tennis, Chess said.
Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the traditional program had to be canceled. But city officials wanted to develop an alternative that local children could still participate in, albeit safely.
Hermitage Board of Commissioners Vice President Duane Piccirilli was able to put Chess and McKendry in contact with Suzanne Barbati, the executive director of the science center.
The summer recreation program had previously taken a group of children for a visit to the science center in downtown Youngstown several years ago, although Chess said he was initially concerned about how interested kids would be in a virtual summer following a few months of virtual schooling.
Those concerns have since been dissuaded; 27 kids are involved in the program, with ages ranging from 5 to 11 or 12, McKendry said.
“When me and Mary Ellen watch the different sessions, you can see the enthusiasm from the kids and Mr. Ralf,” Chess said.
Courses are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with a choice of morning or afternoon sessions.
For those children who are registered with the free program, the parents can pick up their STEM SAKs, or Science Technology Engineering Math — Science Activity Kits, at the Hermitage municipal building on either Friday or early Monday morning. These kits are provided by OH Wow! and include all of the materials the students will need, Ralf said.
Some youngsters are so excited about the program that their parents have asked about getting the supplies early so they can still participate while away on vacation, he said.
“So far we’ve had a wonderful response from the parents and even some grandparents who are watching their grandkids during the summer, because now there’s an activity they can let their kids work on for about an hour of the day,” he said.
Since partnering with Hermitage on their Pioneer Virtual Summer Camp, Ralf said OH Wow! has begun working with other entities on similar virtual education programs using the STEM SAKs and digital platforms to help provide educational activities despite the pandemic.
Even though OH Wow!’s physical location in Youngstown will remain closed until next May, Ralf said the children who participate in the virtual camp will receive free passes so they can visit the science center when it reopens. Until then, OH Wow! will continue to expand its online presence and the use of STEM SAKs, while the building is being renovated during the closure.
“It makes me excited to know the day will come when our doors will open and the kids and their families can come, and we’ll be there with open arms and we’ll be more efficient and better than before,” he said.
The summer camp completed its second week on Friday, but parents can still sign up their children throughout the program by visiting the City of Hermitage’s website at www.hermitage.net and searching for recreation programs registration.
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