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Taking Young Minds Up, Up and Away

Camp Alpha students and staffers watched at one camper's rocket lifted off Monday evening near the Morris Area Elementary School.The four-day camp, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, was conceived by Morris Area teacher Ken Gagner as a way to cultivate students' interest in sciences in a fun and interesting environment. In addition to learning about rocketry and building and launching their own models, the students study astronomy and aerospace engineering, with an emphasis on NASA and its ...2 / 4
Camp Alpha founder Ken Gagner helps a camper with his rocket.3 / 4
At right, UMM physics professor Len Keeler and a Camp Alpha staffer prepare a large rocket for the 10th annual camp's final launch.4 / 4

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

How's this for sweet: Spend a week building rockets that can be fired hundreds of feet into the air at high speeds, and not only are the adults not mad, they applaud your efforts.

Little wonder Camp Alpha is such a hit.

Morris Area teacher Ken Gagner came up with the idea to teach sciences through rocketry and the space program back when his career began 20 years ago.

Camp Alpha is sponsored by Morris Area Community Education and the University of Minnesota, Morris.

The camp celebrated its 10th anniversary and attendance has grow almost four-fold since its inception.

"Part of it is you put the kids in charge of the design and the modification," Gagner said. "When you don't give a test afterward, kids aren't afraid to fail. When you take that pressure off, that's important. Plus, it's just plain fun."

Gagner became interested in the space program in high school and he bought a set of model rockets to use as a teaching tool when he began his career.

"You couldn't do this kind of science experiment in a 50-minute class period," he said.

In addition to building their rockets, the campers spend hours studying comets, gazing at stars at the University of Minnesota, Morris' observatory and other activities.

The camp is for students in grades 4 through 8, and delves into astronomy, aerospace, science, and math, and take on problems facing NASA scientists and study recent space missions.

When he started the four-day, three-night Camp Alpha program, 13 kids applied. Now, Camp Alpha's enrollment is capped at 40 kids from all around Minnesota and the region, and Gagner has eight paid staffers and two volunteers working the camp. And it's not just the kids enjoying the experience: Seven of Gagner's eight staffers returned from last year, he said.

One of Camp Alpha's staff, J.T. Davies, is a self-professed "physics nerd" from St. Anthony who attended Camp Alpha for two years before joining the staff.

"I like shooting things up," said the Spring Lake Park High School student. "You learn by observation. You don't see the equations but you can figure things out."

Len Keeler, of the University of Minnesota, Morris Physics faculty, has worked with Gagner on Camp Alpha for four or five years, an interest the two have shared for some time.

"I always did this stuff as a kid," Keeler said.

Keeler encourages campers to use equipment to collect data about such things as velocity and altitude.

"It's such an opportunity to introduce them to quantitative science," he said.

"I can't thank Len enough for what he does," Gagner said. "He brings so much to the camp."

The camp has become so respected that its students now are among the select few who are eligible to apply for the Klick Foundation Scholarship. Students from Camp Alpha, Sauk Center, Long Prairie-Grey Eagle and Minnewaska high schools are eligible to appy for the scholarships, which can total about $28,000 over a four-year college program in engineering, entrepreneuership or graduate study.

Those wishing to attend the 11th annual Camp Alpha, June 20-23, 2010, can get information and apply online at: