Nailah Lewis wasn't frightened by her first encounter with a hissing cockroach. And she didn't jump when she came face to face with a reticent hermit crab and a crow flapping its wings.
The fourth-grader wants to be a biologist, and that interest only intensified during the days she spent at an unusual summer science camp organized by Cal State Long Beach.
"We get to do a lot of cool experiments," said a grinning Nailah, 8, one recent morning. "We built and flew kites and made airplanes. When we studied earwigs, one of the teachers tried to tell a joke that if they crawled in your ear and got to your brain, you'd die, but I said, 'That's not true.'"
What makes this camp special is that all of its participants are homeless or, like Nailah, have recently experienced unstable living conditions.
Now in its third year, the half-day, two-week program gives the youngsters a chance to explore concepts and career options they might not otherwise. For parents, the camp offers a haven for their children during the day, when many of them must leave the emergency shelters where they stay each night.
"They're learning to respect wildlife and nature and learning to get along with other children," said Nailah's mother, Dana Lewis, whose younger daughter Alaiyah, 5, also attended the camp. Lewis and her children lived in a motel for two and a half months after she was evicted from a Northridge apartment.
Three years ago, the family moved into permanent housing in Long Beach run by the nonprofit group People Assisting the Homeless. Lewis now works at a nearby emergency shelter.
"The camp provides a very secure and safe environment, and my girls come home feeling like they've made friends with adults," she said.
This year the campers, who ranged in age from kindergarteners through eighth-graders, studied animals and bugs, launched rockets and kites and investigated "crime" scenes, including a mysteriously contaminated cake. Teachers kept the group's special needs in mind when they designed the curriculum, avoiding violent themes and structuring each day's lesson to stand alone because some students come and go.
"As someone who prepares future teachers, it's good to know the needs of this group and how to better educate them," said Laura Henriques, who chairs Cal State Long Beach's science education department and has overseen the camp for three years. "You can't look at a kid and tell he is homeless. A lot of misconceptions and stereotypes get shattered."
In one classroom, students experimented with flight, affixing a large wing made of cardboard to one arm to learn about aerodynamics. Later, they were delighted to gently touch the feathery wing of a black crow brought in by teacher Debbie Drab.
After drawing a strong likeness of the crow, Jaynee Herrera, 8, announced that she liked birds.
"It was so soft," Jaynee said of the crow's wing. "I never felt something like that before."
The children are learning not only valuable lessons about scientific observation, Drab said, but also that they can become scientists. She said that she and other teachers have had to be careful with some presentations. She decided not to bring in a real severed bird wing, something she's used in other classes with young people. And in a lesson on what to feed crickets, she made sure to tell the students, some of whom had gone hungry, that the food they were giving the insects was rotten or had been dropped on the floor.
"Many of these kids have experienced hunger, and they would wonder why are you feeding perfectly good food to a cricket," said Drab, who is studying for a master's in science education at Cal State Long Beach.
The camp is funded through a $30,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation, which also pays for a bus that stops at shelters, downtown hotels and motels, and other low-income housing to transport children to Bethune Transitional Center on the city's west side. The camp partnered with the Long Beach Boys and Girls Club to provide afternoon activities for the kids.
The camp serves an increasingly pressing need. An analysis of recently released federal data by the nonprofit child advocacy groups First Focus and the National Assn. for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth found that the number of homeless students in the nation's public schools increased by 41% in the last two years. In California, the number rose by 62%.
At Bethune Center, officials said that about 2,500 students in the Long Beach Unified School District have been identified as homeless, but there are an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 others. The center provides catch-up class work for the children, assesses their progress and helps them make the transition to regular classrooms.
Those counted as homeless include families that are living two to a household and those living in garages or in an unstable sleeping arrangement, said Rhonda Haramis, the center's lead teacher and program head. She pointed to several recent trends, including a growing number of homeless families in which the parents are college-educated married couples who have lost their homes in the economic downturn.
"Unlike the chronically homeless, they don't realize there are services available," Haramis said. "Many end up coming to their kid's school having just lost a job. One of the great things about the science camp is that for many families, it provides their first encounter with a wider array of social services."
Back in the classroom, the students seemed enthralled by California Highway Patrol Officer Travis Ruiz, who described the tools of his trade, including a baton, pepper spray and handcuffs.
For Lorenzo Byrd, 8, there was only one question that needed answering:
"How come y'all can run the red light?"