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Natural History Museum brings desert to life for young campers

Published August 30, 2012 8:53 am

Women in science • Program hopes to captivate girls' interest in biology and geology.
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In the sprawling space of the Canyon room at the Natural History Museum of Utah, saguaro cactus grow where coyotes scattered seeds. While lizards bake in the hot sand, Papago Indians tell stories of life in the desert.

And, sitting in rows of folding chairs, the parents of the desert wildlife smile and take pictures with their cellphones.

Thirty-six second- through fifth-graders performed a play based on the book The Desert Is Theirs, a culmination of their experience learning about the landscape surrounding the museum. The students hiked the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, dissected and ate cacti and explored threats to the desert habitats.

The camp, called Dramatic Deserts, was one of several offered at the museum, helped by donations by its presenting partner, the Utah Educational Savings Plan (UESP). The organization, which boasts one of the most highly rated 529 college savings plans in the country, also provided scholarships for three campers this year as well as a $50 certificate at the end of the play.

Scott Pettit, a representative of UESP, said the group was motivated to support the camps as a way to sustain the governor's plan to increase education in the state.

"It's an opportunity to show people that it doesn't take a lot to start saving," Pettit said. "Every little bit helps. It's one thing we stress and a big part of what we're trying to accomplish with this partnership."

The majority of the Dramatic Deserts camp were young women; the three scholarship recipients were all recommended by the YWCA. The play came to fruition through a partnership with The Children's Theatre, an arts organization that has been in downtown Salt Lake City for 27 years.

The museum's public-programs manager, Lisa Thompson, hopes the combination of art, biology and geology will help young women think about science in a new way and consider pursuing science education in the future. According to the American Association of University Women, only 20 percent of women entering college choose majors in science and technology.

"Both art and science are very creative endeavors and are about making astute observations about your surroundings," Thompson said. "For girls who think of themselves as artists, art can be a hook. It can make them realize that art and science aren't that different. Both are creative endeavors and something the girls can find success in."

While the number of women in science remains low, interest from the younger generation is growing. The camps this year were at capacity and had full waitlists.

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At a glance

The Natural History Museum Camps this year ran $130 to $255 per week per child, though returning campers are given discounted prices.

Dramatic Deserts was one of several camps offered throughout the summer. The museum offers camps for kindergarten through fifth grade and workshops for older students.

Utah Educational Savings Plan was rated one of the top six college savings plans in the country by the Morningstar Advisor.