Students shake up tornadoes at ‘Spectacular Science Camp’

From racing toy cars on ramps to building and flying paper airplanes, young students were constantly in motion at Jerry Nash’s “Totally Awesome, Super Duper, Spectacular Science Camp” last week.

Nash, a science teacher at Ridgefield Academy, entertained campers with lessons in entomology (the science of bugs and insects), meteorology, astronomy, physics and more over the course of five days at the rec center.

Zany experiments included making a tornado in a bottle, building volcanoes, and whipping around sound spinners.

“The message I want to get across is pretty simple: Science is the best subject ever and that’s because you can make it whatever you want it to be and you can have fun while doing it,” Nash said.

Nash has taught at Ridgefield Academy (RA) for the last 11 years, engaging students with a science lab that includes everything from turtles and gerbils to rubber chickens to old clocks.

He set up the Copper Beach Room at the rec center just like his classroom at Ridgefield Academy, he told The Press.

“I want the lab to feel like the crossroads of science and magic,” said Nash, who lives in Sandy Hook with his wife and children. “Science is a strong enough topic on its own to hold a lot of kids’ attention spans but I’ve found it smart to infuse it with a little history and a little entertainment. That’s why you’ll hear me put on the PA-man voice and say things like ‘Physics, Not Fishticks!’ to the kids.”

He graduated from UConn with a degree in environmental science and was working for High Touch Tech out of Weston in 2002 when he first did a gig for Ridgefield Academy.

“I came in as this sort of ‘mad scientist’ who had all these elaborate and kooky hands-on experiments,” he said. “Fossils, volcanoes — you name it. We had a lot of fun.”

While Nash enjoyed visiting schools all around Fairfield County, he yearned to be at a place where he could see kids grow.

“I never had the chance to see kids progress when I was working in and out of classrooms,” he said. “It was really just a snapshot.”

When the opportunity came up to work full-time at RA, Nash jumped at the opportunity.

“It just felt right, the vibe there was always incredible,” he said. “And the kids have made it worth it. It’s really my life’s work getting to see them grow year to year. ...There are kids that I taught who are now interning at NASA. Talk about planting seeds and watching the harvest come up. It’s amazing that I’ve been part of their lives at such a meaningful time period.”

First-time camper

He teaches kindergarten through fourth grade, focusing on hands-on science. He also gets to have fun outside of the classroom, bringing his lab to birthday parties — sometimes held at the rec center.

“That’s where this whole camp started from,” he said. “I worked a few birthday parties here and I got to know the staff and they were totally interested in me bringing in my stuff and teaching the kids everything I could fit into a week. This is my first science camp here so I’m glad that partnership really worked out. The more we can do for the community, the better.”

The fun at Nash’s Super Duper, Spectacular science camp also included Frisbees, gliders, balance birds, marbles and Lego-like “Lux Blox.”

“Lux Blox are the future of STEM,” Nash said. “The kids can snap different pieces together and build just about anything with them.”

At camp, students built everything from swimming goggles to Pokemon balls.

“Eighty percent of the camp is doing — same way as I have it set up in my lab,” Nash explained. “Kids get excited when they know they’re going to be able to touch and play with things and be hands on. You kind of dangle that out in front of them though because it’s important to have them sit and learn why it’s important.”

‘All sorts of crazy things’

The PA-man voice isn’t the only one Nash employs to capture his young learner’s attention.

“I do a robot voice and dance,” he said. “I do all sorts of crazy things.”

One of his other tricks is playing with lights and shadows in the classroom. That’s why he held a laser light dance party for the campers at the end of the week.

“I’m a big optical illusions guy and use that to teach lessons about cones and rods and reflections,” he said. “I like bringing them into a world they never get to see. It takes them away from reality if only for a few seconds.”

He said the rising trend of STEM curriculum being taught in classrooms all across America has timed up nicely with his teaching methods and overall delivery.

“I’ve always been a big believer of hands-on learning,” he said. “I’ve taught trajectory lessons through having a water balloon fight before. I’ll try anything if it gets the kids outdoors and engaged in learning. ...

“The science they teach you in high school is not exactly engaging,” he said. “So while I have my kids, I want them to have a lot of fun and walk away feeling inspired by science. I want to give them the feeling of confidence and fascination.”