By RANDY GONZALES
University Relations and Marketing
Alex Landwehr loves science. He attended science camps as a high school student. He is now an instructor at science camps. He finished his freshman year at Fort Hays State University this spring dreaming of a scientific career in paleontology.
FHSU’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History helps nourish that passion for science. Its scholarship program provided financial assistance in 2017 and 2018 for Landwehr to attend – and flourish – at summer science camps, which led to a position on camp staff.
“Without the financial aid, I wouldn’t have been able to go,” Landwehr said recently, taking a break from the six daily camps he is involved in this summer as an instructor.
The Sternberg summer science camps, now in their sixth year, have grown both in numbers and income generated. The first summer in 2014 had an enrollment of four students, all from Kansas. The net income generated was $1,200. This summer, there are 51 participants from 22 states enrolled in Sternberg’s camps for elementary, middle school and high school students. The net income for 2019 is $35,000. In addition to the scholarship program, income generated goes toward purchase of new equipment for the camps and marketing.
Camps Director David Levering wants Sternberg’s programs to be both affordable and accessible. They fill a need for youth science camps in Kansas and the surrounding area. He knew of expensive science camps on both coasts, and he wanted just the opposite when he was hired in 2013.
“It seemed to me that a lot of the students benefiting the most from these opportunities were students who already had a leg up, economically,” Levering said. “It occurred to me that if we could get those kinds of opportunities readily available in rural communities, it would be hugely beneficial.
“Having it here, in the middle of the country, is crucial,” he added. “Lower income students don’t have the resources to participate in camps that are across the country.”
That’s where the scholarships come in. Landwehr is thankful for Sternberg’s financial assistance.
“I think it’s really good that they do that,” he said. “They’re providing opportunities for people who aren’t financially able. I know I have friends from other (Sternberg) camps who wouldn’t have been able to go without financial aid.”
Landwehr was able to attend paleontology field camps in 2017 and 2018 with Sternberg’s help.
“I wanted to know if paleontology was something I wanted to do,” he said. “I went to those camps to see if that was what I wanted to major in.”
Landwehr now knows what he wants. He is a double major at FHSU, in biology and geology with a paleontology emphasis.
“I’ve always been interested in the natural sciences,” said Landwehr, a 2018 graduate of Topeka High School. “I really liked geology and biology. Paleontology is a really good mix of those two.”
Levering was originally hired as Sternberg’s museum educator. Dr. Reese Barrick, Sternberg’s museum director, soon realized the camps, as envisioned by himself and Levering, was a full-time job. Levering, who had previous experience with youth science camps, quickly showed that was an area of expertise. Barrick shifted job responsibilities and named Levering as camp director.
“I had wanted to have more connection with high school kids in general,” Barrick said. “That was one of the reasons I hired him as education director. He was at his best when he interacted with high school and middle school kids.”
Levering had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish. Barrick lent his support.
“It’s a big credit to Dr. Barrick,” Levering said. “I told him and the rest of the museum staff when I was interviewing what I wanted to do. I think it is a lot of credit to Dr. Barrick to agreeing with that idea as something that would be hugely beneficial to students in rural western Kansas.”
Barrick said many of the students attend camps in multiple summers. That helps boost attendance, as does word-of-mouth testimonials from students. Sternberg also capitalizes on serving an area previously under-utilized by science camps. And, one summer’s camper can become next year’s Fort Hays State student, like Landwehr.
“Because there are not a ton of camps in the country that do what we do, some of it is just in marketing,” Barrick said. “We’ve had some kids come to Fort Hays State through the camps. That’s pretty exciting.”
As the camps have grown in both the number offered and in participants, the need for additional camp instructors was filled in part by students such as Landwehr, in his first summer on staff.
“I wanted to keep doing camps, and being an instructor is a good way to stay on with the program,” said Landwehr, who is compensated for serving as an instructor. “It helps a lot. If I didn’t get paid I don’t know if I would get to be on summer staff.”
Being able to go to Sternberg’s science camps, and later serving as instructors, can put students on the path to success.
“The long-term benefits can be huge for students participating in these kinds of opportunities,” Levering said.