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Celestial seasoning: Students explore final frontier at summer camp

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By Emile Hallez

  Thriftiness and space exploration may not seem like words that rest well in the same sentence, but a visit to education entrepreneur Mark Palmere’s summer camp might cause one to reconsider that notion.

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At Space Voyage Academy, which is not affiliated with NASA, students ages 5 to 16 combat summer brain degradation with flight simulations on antiquated computers and exploration in inflatable space vehicles crafted of sheet plastic and duct tape.

And while a nearly overwhelming do-it-yourself atmosphere permeates the camp, which is held in Summit Ridge Middle School’s cafeteria, the methods are vastly more important than the medium, Palmere said.

“If it runs the software that’s created by some genius, then you’re good to go,” he said in defense of a line of circa-1984 Apple computers, complete with original floppy-disk drives. “We’ve gone through so many computers,” he added, noting that he provides mechanical life support to all of the devices when they begin to falter.

Kids work their way up through a highly structured array of ranks at the camp, beginning as pathfinders at age 5 and graduating through five levels of astronaut cadet titles by age 16.

Prepping young minds for extraterrestrial careers is not necessarily the point of the camp, which has expanded its offerings this year to include art, innovation and history-specific programs.

“The purpose of the camp is to immerse them into thinking like an astronaut,” said Palmere, who developed the first program in the late ’80s with a group of his middle school pupils. “They’re using their minds in the summer, so they don’t go backward.”

Camp session blocks last five days, though students can enroll for the entire summer if parents are so inclined. The school’s cafeteria is transformed into an exotic space-themed world for three months, with an impressive assortment of foam rockets, astronaut posters and dated but functional computers sprinkled throughout.

Children live and breathe a space-themed existence at Space Voyage, and in way, they eat it, too.

“We have edible lessons,” Palmere said. “The kids get to build something out of food and then eat it.” Such a lesson could, for example, involve programming a robotic arm, such as the novelty Radio Shack variety from the ’80s, to retrieve a piece of hard candy, he said.

Though open to students of all academic levels, those who have strong interests in space will be the most engaged, Palmere said. The camp also accommodates special-needs students, including those with attention-deficit disorder, Asperger syndrome, allergies and a variety of other needs. The camp cannot, however, properly serve blind or deaf students.

The camp ranges in enrollment from 10 to 25 kids per week, and Palmere gets a hand from former students, whom he readily employs.

Graduates of his camps have helped develop new additions such as the “pod,” a motorized wheelchair modified with a wooden frame and corrugated-plastic exoskeleton, which students learn to pilot around a defined area.

“I love teaching,” said Ben Sales, a former student of Palmere’s who is now attending the University of Colorado. “I started coming to the camp seven years ago. … I love being able to run the room. It’s given me a lot of skills in terms of team management.”

At a price of $299 per week, the camp is a refreshing alternative to day care, Palmere said. To help keep costs low, he’s brought essentially every production aspect of the camp in-house. When the cost of ordering custom T-shirts ballooned, for example, he started his own screen-printing company and began ordering blank shirts directly from a factory. Nearly all of the gigantic posters are precisely assembled prints made on standard computer paper. And to help bring down the cost of the camp’s original patches, Palmere bought his own embroidery equipment.

One of the most expensive aspects of the operation is merely storing all of the equipment, Palmere said. Space Voyage does not have a permanent home, and when camp is not in session or Palmere is not doing classroom demonstrations around the county, the rockets, inflatables and other gear need temporary space.

“I spend about $8,000 a year just storing the equipment,” he said.

But expenses and profit aside, Space Voyage gives the staff a personal sense of satisfaction.

“I like meeting all the kids,” said Evergreen High School student Kelsey Evezich, who used to attend the camp. “I learn a lot more from them every week.”

 

Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.