IRVINE : Kids Dig Hands-On Learning

Andrey Pavlov found an opossum skull in a milk carton the other day and let out a victory whoop.

"Look! Look at the bone. It's a whole skull," the 10-year-old Tustin boy shouted to a bunch of friends gathered around. "It's cool."

The group of students scored big in a mock archeological dig held last week at UC Irvine Extension's summer science camp.

Before class, teachers hid a snake vertebrae and the skulls of a cat, opossum and rat in milk cartons filled with plaster. They then set the students to work to find what was inside.

Using toothbrushes, water and the furious energy of young elbows, the students scrubbed away at the plaster molds. Excavation was not always smooth. At one point Andrey, frustrated by the slow pace, smashed his plaster chunk on the ground.

"Imagine you've been out in the Gobi Desert for three weeks and this is the only fossil you've found and if you break it, it's worthless," said curriculum coordinator Todd Ferguson, moving quickly to head off the impending archeological disaster. "You have to be careful."

"Oh," Andrey said, before rejoining the hunt.

About 300 youngsters are taking part in the science camp, which runs through the middle of August. UC Irvine Extension officials are hoping the camp, which is broken up into two-week sessions, will strengthen the science lessons children learn during the school year.

"Parent surveys show these are the kinds of courses they want their kids in," said Darlene Boyd, the coordinator of pre-college programs for UC Irvine Extension. "And although the focus is science, we try to keep it interdisciplinary."

Youngsters in first through fifth grade can take classes in aviation, engineering and even environmental law at a cost of $275 for a two-week session. There is also a similar camp for children in grades six through nine.

Although the idea of school during the summer might wrinkle the face of many a vacation-happy child, program officials say they do their best to make the courses enjoyable.

"We try to make it fun," said Kate Meredith, another curriculum coordinator and eighth-grade science teacher. "At the elementary level, there's still a strong need . . . for kids to get a hands-on science program."

Hands-on is right.

"We get dirty," said Chase Wiles, 10, the white flecks of plaster speckling his face, arms and shirt.

The Huntington Beach boy curled his lip slightly when asked if there was anything he didn't like about the exercise. "No dinosaur bones," he started to say but was cut off by a sudden cry.

"We got it, we got it!" shouted Patty Paddon, 10, of Newport Beach.

"It looks like a jaw, the top of the jaw," said Edward Kim, 10 of Irvine, who said he found the bone.

But Cole Arakaki, 10, immediately disputed the claim. "I'm the one who got it out," he said.

Cole said he was "interested" in archeology. "To dig up bones is real neat," the Ontario resident said. "It's like finding an ancient artifact."

But Patty said the brushing and picking was a little too time-consuming. "It took us about an hour to get this out," she said.

For more information about UC Irvine Extension's summer programs, call (714) 856-5069.

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