Eastside Neighborhood

EASEL, Eastside elementary science and arts camp, hopes to add middle school STEAM camp this summer

An easel is the perfect metaphor for an arts-based science program that transforms the lower level of the Eastside Neighborhood Association building each summer into a multi-textured and many-colored canvas.

In its fifth year, Eastside Arts and Experiential Learning (EASEL), a STEM program run by Eastside Youth Strong, is a six-weeks-long camp for 20 first through fifth graders that meets for three full days each week. The hands-on curriculum, which includes weekly field trips, is based on Next Generation Science and Common Core objectives.

Do kids get dirty? Yes, they do. 

Do they learn to understand the scientific process and how to apply it? Absolutely, says co-teacher Rebecca Joyce, a student advocate at the Kalamazoo Math and Science Center during the school year. 

Joyce says when the program was first described to her, she responded, “Oh, you mean a real life Magic School Bus,” referring to the PBS show in which Ms. Frizzle and her class traveled to whatever they were studying, including inside human bodies and to outer space.

“You get to take all of those fun pieces that maybe you get to do once or twice in a typical school year, and you have six weeks where you can do tons of fun stuff,” says Joyce. “Over the summer, you can see them getting more confident.”
Learning science with EASEL at Bow in the Clouds Preserve.
Joyce cited frequent trips to Bow in the Clouds, a Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy nature preserve located off of Nazareth Road which she calls the “Eastside’s backyard nature preserve.” 

“Some of the kids, in the beginning, don’t even want to sit in the tall grasses, but after a while, you see them catching bugs, getting off the trail. Seeing that type of development is so neat.”

EASEL is for kids who are “jazzed up about science,” says Sam Lealofi, Executive Director of Eastside Youth Strong, EASEL’s parent organization. Many students come from the Eastside Youth Strong after-school CHAMPS program, Lealofi says, so they have a “360 experience.” 

Like Lealofi, the teachers, Joyce, Dan Keto, science teacher at Kalamazoo Public School’s Phoenix High School, and CHAMPS’ teachers Yulonda Taylor and Heather Taylor, are committed to raising up Eastside youth to help them meet their creative and academic potential. 

“We wanted families to know that you didn’t have to leave the neighborhood to go to this fun, high-level, experiential learning experience,” says Lealofi. “It’s hands-on, and cool, and vibey.”

Partnered with such groups as the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, the Kalamazoo Valley Community College Sustainable Campus, Western Michigan University Medical School, the Air Zoo, and the Kalamazoo Nature Center, among others, EASEL campers are exposed to a wide variety of local science experiences. EASEL is funded in part by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, and many other generous donors, says Lealofi.

Now that some of the original EASEL participants are close to aging out, Lealofi says, the program is planning to add a new middle school level. Currently, EASEL is working with Kalamazoo Regional Educational Association and other partners through Kalamazoo’s Shared Prosperity plan to start an Eastside Middle School STEAM Academy, which will focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.  

“The STEAM Academy would be a highlight (to EASEL), especially for these young people heading to high school who do struggle,” Lealofi says. Pending funding, “we will launch this summer. For fifth graders who have graduated from EASEL, that would be the next step.”

EASEL, which relies on strong parental participation, is helping make Eastside youth strong, says Lealofi.

“It’s one of the coolest things that happens in the summer to me because the room is filled with these engaged kids and these incredible teachers,” says Lealofi, “but it’s one of the saddest things when we have to break it back down again to this blank slate (at summer’s end).”

To learn more about EASEL or the proposed Eastside Middle School STEAM Academy, please see the Eastside Youth Strong website here.

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.