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Hands-On Learning: TLU Hosts Science Mill Camps for Local Students

(June 28, 2024 | Seguin, Texas) The inception of the Science Mill was something of a stroke of brilliance. An old feed mill, built in the late 1800s, stood in the heart of the little town of Johnson City in the Texas Hill Country. It was a landmark in the community—and although it ceased operation as a mill in the 1980s— about a hundred years after it had come into being—it still stood, an icon along US-290. It was converted into a restaurant and entertainment complex, but then, in 2012, was purchased by the Science Mill, a 501(c)3 non-profit. About three years later, it opened to the public, and now serves as the ultimate fieldtrip destination for area children—as well as curious adults.

But just as that old mill evolved, so has the Science Mill. “Not everyone can come to the Science Mill,” says Ashley Kortis, Director of Advancement and Marketing. “So now we bring our programs into their communities.”

That’s right, the Science Mill is no longer fully contained in that repurposed mill in Johnson City—although if you ever have a chance to go there, it’s not to be missed. Now, it hosts summer science camps across the nation—and recently as far off as Nairobi, Kenya. And for the past three years, Texas Lutheran University has played host to the camps in Seguin, this year, offering one camp for elementary school students and another for middle school students from the Seguin, Navarro, and Marion ISDs. The goal? To make science accessible to children everywhere, regardless of economic status, gender, race, or location.

“The science camps are a good fit for us here at Texas Lutheran University,” says Bob Oliver, who is chair of TLU’s Board of Regents and serves on the Science Mill’s board as well—and who also just happens to be a geologist. Oliver says that bringing local kids to the camps not only exposes them to science, but also allows them to get a taste of what a university campus is like. “Science has always been very important to me,” he says. “The Science Mill provides the curriculum, supplies—and the teachers get to keep the supplies for use during the school year.”

The camp model is unique in that the Science Mill provides curriculum, content, and materials, but local teachers help facilitate the activities. Thus, the teachers are learning alongside the students and can bring the lessons back to their classrooms, plus they get to keep the materials and equipment used during camp—a definite win-win situation for all concerned.

TLU President Debbie Cottrell agrees. “I think our future is about serving this region well,” she says, pointing to the importance of making science accessible to all students. Since the Seguin camps are paid for through the support of the Texas Pioneer Foundation and a generous donation from Oliver, there is no charge for students and teachers to attend. “We will not be successful if our students are not successful,” Cottrell says, adding that some of the kids who attend camp might one day be TLU students. “We want to be a place that has helped them to figure out their journey.”

Indeed, science has been an important part of TLU’s curriculum from the beginning and has taken center stage with its nursing programs on multiple campuses, not to mention its ongoing emphasis on all of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects. Cottrell says that introducing children to science early on also allows confidence to take root, and Kortis concurs. “We want every kid to know—they don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse—but we want them to know it’s possible.”

And exploring possibilities is most definitely the order of the day at the Science Mill, whether at the main facility in Johnson City or at camp, where future scientists are busy building robots, learning coding, discovering nature, and gaining a love for learning and the confidence to ask questions.