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FOR THE KIDS : Past and Future : Camp lets American Indian children explore their heritage while encouraging them to pursue careers in science.

July 25, 1991|IRIS CHANG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This summer, a group of American Indian children in Ventura are learning more about their ancient heritage by making pottery, painting with berry juice and baking bread. But they are also launching rockets, designing a pier and using a supercomputer to predict weather patterns.

All of this is taking place during the eight-week run of the first math and science summer camp in the state for American Indians.

The California Indian Education Center at 98 MacMillan St. in Ventura has launched an experimental program running from July 9 to Aug. 27, sponsored by the Native American Indian Inter-tribal Assn. of Ventura County and the Mathematics, Engineering and Science Assn. based at UC Berkeley.

The goal of the camp is to encourage American Indian children to pursue careers in science while helping them examine their cultural roots.

"This camp is different from school because we allow the children to pose and solve their own problems," said Tom Smith, an honorary Choctaw chief and the director of the camp. "We also want them to learn how to work cooperatively, the way scientists would in the real world."

On the first day of camp, students are welcomed by bulletin boards decorated with feathers, American Indian emblems and pictures of animals. In one corner of the room stands a rack of pamphlets announcing cultural activities and college opportunities. Along the walls are shelves of children's literature, science textbooks, encyclopedias and volumes on American Indian history.

American Indian music plays in the background. Of the 25 children enrolled, a dozen arrive and form three teams, which they called the Redskins, the Shooting Stars and the Five Little Indians.

They introduce themselves and name their tribes, which include the Cherokee, Apache, Mescalera, Papago, Chumash--just some of the many tribes that represent the 6,000 American Indians in Ventura County.

"I like Indians," said 10-year-old Zachary Fosco when asked why he had enrolled in the camp.

"My mother helped me make an Indian chief hat with feathers, the kind of hat you see in cartoons and movies. I want to learn more about the western times, and stuff about cowboys and Indians."

Fosco and the other children draw "trash monsters"--imaginary creatures that gorge themselves on chicken bones, beer cans, paper and other trash--and discuss ways in which they can put the monsters on a diet through recycling.

Then they watch a videotape on Chumash Indian culture and compete to see which team remembers the most details.

The camp will be split into four units of two weeks each: earth, air, water and fire. Joy Muhleck, a teacher for the camp, said in some cases the units will cross over, such as the air and fire units when students build and launch toy rockets. The emphasis is not on memorization but on hands-on exploration.

For instance, after learning how the early Indians used earth to build houses, make pottery and grow crops, students will design structures out of clay and toothpicks, make pinch pots and conduct some experiments with bean plants.

Field trips will take students to the beach, Ventura museums and the Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu. Outside speakers will come to the camp to help children dissect squids, demonstrate how a generator works and describe the engineering behind the restoration of the San Buenaventura pier.

All students are required to keep a journal of their camp experiences, which can include sketches, charts and descriptions of nature.

"We want to encourage them to be observant and take down notes, which would improve their writing as well," Smith said.

The most ambitious project involves linking a personal computer to the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Under a program headed by the Department of Energy, many students and teachers are allowed to use the supercomputers free of charge for math and science experiments.

Smith plans to have the children collect data--such as temperature, wind speed, tide and rainfall--and let the supercomputer translate the data into images, simulating and predicting weather patterns.

Currently, he is looking to acquire or borrow an Apple 13-inch color monitor and a Macintosh computer. He also intends to ask Ventura city engineers for a copy of the blueprints of the San Buenaventura pier. The children will work together to design their own pier, using the supercomputer to make graphics and computations, and later build a model pier out of toothpicks and balsa wood.

The California Indian Education Center employs tutors to help more than 200 American Indian children in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, including 25 children at the Santa Ynez Reservation.

This year, Smith has hired three students in the Gifted and Talented Education program to tutor the children in higher math and computer science and two high school students are acting as interns to help do paperwork, answer phones and tutor children.

A mobile home serving as a learning and counseling unit makes regular stops at neighborhoods and schools, offering a small center in which as many as six children can be tutored at the same time. Smith estimates that there are more than 1,000 Indian children in the Ventura Unified School District.

The center has also paid for a new one-month math and science summer camp that opened in July at the Santa Ynez Indian Reservation, which children from the summer camp will visit on one of their field trips.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The California Indian Education Center at 98 MacMillan St. in Ventura has launched math and science camps in Ventura and at the Santa Ynez Indian Reservation. Enrollment is still going on at both camps, which are open to all American Indian students free of cost. Students who have as little as 1/32nd Indian blood are eligible. For information, call the center at (805) 643-4950.

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