Kaycee Mabe, 10, has always been "kind of interested" in science, but two days into the Karnes County Eagle Ford Energy Camp her feelings have changed. "I like it more now," Kayce said. That's music to Jeanette Winn's ears. The Karnes City Independent School District superintendent said she hopes the camp sparks excitement among students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM fields. Mornings at the camp, which runs through Thursday, kick off with presentations by oil company personnel in a variety of jobs and include science experiments for which campers don white lab coats. A favorite experiment on the first day involved using drinking straws to extract "soil samples" from tricolored cupcakes, with a goal of finding the white "sedimentary" layer. "Sedimentary rock has more oil," Kaycee explained. Energy Camp, in its first year, is being paid for by four oil companies working in the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas play. It started off small, with four mornings of activities for about 30 elementary and middle school students. Winn said she hopes it can expand in subsequent years. The idea grew out of a "visioning session" put on by the Karnes City Education Foundation and involving people from all four public school districts in the county, Winn said. Some researchers have said a much-discussed shortage of workers trained in STEM fields is overblown, though President Barack Obama has pushed for more emphasis on it and educators across the country have embraced STEM programs. Like many of the campers, Kaycee has family who work in oil field jobs. Karnes County is at the center of the thriving oil and gas boom that has affected at least two dozen counties to the south and east of San Antonio. The boom has meant opportunities for partnerships like the one that produced the summer camp. And it has meant more tax revenue for school districts like Karnes City ISD as property values skyrocket. "On the other hand, there have been some difficulties," Winn said. The district has seen an increase in highly mobile students who sometimes have trouble keeping up with schoolwork as their families follow oil field jobs. It has also lost workers to the oil companies, which can afford to pay higher salaries. And all that new revenue can't be spent locally. This year, the state declared Karnes City ISD newly property-wealthy. In keeping with a school finance system that attempts to spread wealth across Texas school districts, Winn said she expects to send $20 million to the state next fiscal year. She praised efforts by the oil companies to support local public schools. ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil, Statoil and Talisman Energy all helped to pay for this week's camp, which is free for students. On Tuesday campers visited an energy-themed "mobile museum" in a trailer outside the county library. Then middle school students built low-tech devices to measure wind speed, called anemometers, while their younger counterparts used pencils, string and foam balls studded with little wooden paddles to simulate hydropower plants. Wednesday's agenda includes using solar ovens to cook hot dogs. Teachers say the camp allows them to do more with each topic than they would during the school year. "We have more time to do things in here," fifth-grade teacher Tara Jacob said. "It's a little more in-depth."
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