Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Nearly 200 local students are topping off their summer breaks with the Tuolumne County Office of Education's Mad About Science day camp this week.

The five-day camp, hosted at Columbia College, features science activities that are often too messy or time-consuming for a regular classroom.

Funding comes from the Tuolumne County Office of Education and Sonora-based technology company Front Porch. The program is still completely free for participants, organizers said.

Students started the camp Monday by launching air rockets, making miniature Mars rovers out of candy and more.

"They're being aerospace engineers today," said Sonora resident Sherry Mancbach, whose grandson Nicolas learned about air resistance by building a "rocket" out of a wooden dowel and paper wings.

The enthusiastic fourth-graders launched the rockets by stomping on rubber pouches filled with air, then watched how far they glided.

Curtis Creek Elementary School teacher Tricia Dunlap then taught the students about air resistance and its relationship to surface area.

Today, a group of students will become "wildlife biologists" by visiting a Columbia College classroom with taxidermied animals and studying animal footprints, Dunlap said.

Fourth-grade science campers focus on the basics of scientific method, said Cathy Parker, director of special projects at the Tuolumne County Office of Education.

The camp is open to students who are entering fourth through ninth grades. Older students will learn about energy, including solar energy, Parker said. Her own lessons and activities for the campers center on engineering.

With the help of Columbia College professor Jeff Tolhurst, students who built miniature Mars rovers out of candy and crackers will even get to use Google Mars to find the ideal "landing spot" for the craft.

"The point of it is to have hands-on experiences," Parker said. "We try to keep class sizes at about 20."

When Mad About Science camp started in 2009, about 50 students signed up. It grew every year, and this year so many families clamored for the program that a waiting list filled with dozens of students.

The Tuolumne County Office of Education added more staff to accommodate the demand, said Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin.

Nine local teachers are participating: Parker, Dunlap, Michelle Kafka and Natalie Hornibrook of Columbia Elementary School, Sheri Betz of Chinese Camp Elementary School, Colleen Whitlock of Curtis Creek, Greg Haney of Jamestown Elementary School, Mike Skutches of Soulsbyville Elementary School and Lynn Skutches of Sonora High School.

Tolhurst is helping in multiple classrooms, Parker said.

The camp was born when Front Porch expressed a desire to improve science education in the county, said Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva.

Silva, Bulkin and other school officials came up with the idea of a science camp, and Front Porch has provided most of the funding ever since.

"It was incredible," Silva said of the camp's first day. "Kids are excited, parents are excited, and teachers are excited. And Columbia is such a welcoming location."

Any Tuolumne County fourth- through ninth-grader can participate in science camp, but they must demonstrate an interest in science on their application, Bulkin said.