For the past 15 years, students across Faulkner County have gathered at the University of Central Arkansas to continue learning during their summer break.

Director and camp founder Lisa Herrington started UCA Challenge, a five-day, science camp for fourth, fifth and sixth graders, off the back of UCA Super Kids, aimed toward younger children with the same STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) concepts.

She said when they started, there wasn’t a mass variety of camps similar to what they were doing.

“We were STEM before it was popular,” Herrington said. “But now, when you look around, there’s a lot to chose from.”

The hands-on curriculum began with students at 8:30 a.m. on Monday and will conclude at 2:30 p.m. on Friday in the Conway Corporation Center for the Sciences at UCA.

While numbers have fluctuated throughout the years – the 2018 summer brought 64 students in and 58 attended this week – not much has changed, other than the rotating curriculum with no one student experiencing the same summer.

For 2019, the group of middle-school aged students were exposed to three different sessions:

n A Mystery Requiring Forensic Investigation: The CSI (Crime Scene Investigation)-style class challenged students to solve the case of a missing millionaire, exploring scientific tests, using evidence from the crime scene, experiencing real-world applications in science.

n Media Monsters: Looked at how media affects our lives and the choices we make as well as how it influences daily occupations like eating and physical activity, students navigating these questions through experiential activities like taking part in yoga and making their own commercials.

n Sights & Sounds All Around: Takes on physics and how it encompasses the world around us, exposing students to experiments like visualizing their voices in a sound-wave demonstration and how music changes the feel of a room.

Year after year the desire for learning continues, Herrington said, the challenge camp a way for students to slow down and take the time to dive deep into the subject, a big variant than the typical schedule-oriented mindset most have during their academic year.

“They want to know more,” she said. “They ask questions.”

The director can recall two moments so far this week where she’s heard eager students asking questions, their teachers encouraging them to go home after the day and research the topic. Herrington said one kid was so into that he came back with a page full of information that he had learned on his own regarding the way sound waves travel through water.

She said that is always cool to see.

In addition, they’ve also developed a way for parents to get involved too.

Herrington said they send newsletters home from the different sessions, including all their child did that day and guiding questions for parents to be able to ask their children, giving them a way to not only drop them off and go, but aid in the way they interact with their child after the fact.

She said her biggest hope has always been that students take what they learn during the UCA Challenge Week and tuck it away in their file cabinet, not just memorizing content, but taking in knowledge they can pull out later and say, “hey, that’s what I learned about this summer.”

Herrington said the camp goes beyond the academic sphere too.

Pulling in kids from all over, no one student the same, the week-long program takes on that social component as well, forcing kids to step outside of their typical comfort zones to meet new friends.

Herrington said she has one camp attendee who sat by herself at lunch, next to another group of girls, the first two days. While she likes doing that and having that down time, the young girl decided to make a change come Wednesday, jumping on the chance to do something different, which the camp director noticed.

She said she went up to the young girl and noted the change and the girl told her after two days of laughing and carrying on with the other group, she thought she’d pull up a chair and eat with them.

“I just thought, ‘You know, even if she does’t learn anything or do anything the rest of the week, just that social aspect,” Herrington said, happily noting that was enough.

That was a big worry for Herrington this year.

For the first time, she’s seen firsthand the effects of social media and other’s perceptions with her 9-year-old son, Carter.

“It was really the first year he really cared about what he wore and he cared about friends ... what they think,” she said.

Herrington said being exposed to that when she hadn’t previously “hurt her heart,” making her hope for more come summertime. This week, not being around best friends and school peers, she’s witnessed the students kind of let that all go, eager to just learn and be a kid.

“They don’t have to worry about someone making fun of them [here],” she said.

The Log Cabin Democrat has covered the event for several years but one camper stands out this year ... Herrington’s son.

During the normal school year, Herrington can be found in Mashburn Hall in the UCA Department of Elementary, Literacy and Special Education. In the summer, though, during that week-long camp, she lives and breathes UCA Challenge. The effect spill over into her family life as well.

She told the LCD on the last day, Friday, Carter usually attends the camp with her.

“This year ... this year is different. It’s his first to attend all five days as a student.”

The LCD asked Herrington how it’s gone.

“First of all, he’s happy he didn’t get to just come on Friday,” she said, laughing. “He’s seen just small bits and parts of all of it here for all these years, he feels like he’s kind of arrived.”

While it’s constantly on her mind, overall, it ended for her each day at 2:30 p.m. when campers left. Now, it’s been following her home each day in the form of her 9-year-old. Herrington said that aspect, listening to him get to tell his dad all that they did that day has been really cool, being on the other side of it. 

“This year has been more special for me just to get to see him interacting with the other kids because he’s waited for so long,” she said. 

Just like everyone else though, Herrington paid the $175 student tuition, noting that the UCA Challenge is completely self-reliant. 

“It hurt a little bit,” she cheerfully grimaced. 

Herrington said doing that got her thinking about the future and possible ways to change the camp up a bit. 

Aspects – all completely undecided – to the annual camp officials are looking at to stay competitive for the future: 

Revamping the brand. Shortening it from five days to three.  Possibly lowering tuition rates.  Doing away with some typical items like T-Shirts and adding varying university-themed gear.