Jordis SongHawk sized up the alligator and, shrugging aside the slimy feeling creeping down her spine, made a grab for it.
"It can't bite me, can it?" she asked Conor Barnes, a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resources.
Descended from dinosaurs, the alligator in Barnes' hands was less than 2 feet long, diminutive compared to the full-grown reptiles that can grow to 12 feet long and 1,000 pounds.
SongHawk reached gently around the reptile's belly and, for a moment, the soon-to-be seventh-grader from the Marty Indian School in South Dakota was holding a real-life alligator.
"It was pretty creepy," she said later. "But I kind of liked it."
Getting hands-on time with animals at UNL was just part of the experience SongHawk and other students, 22 in all from Omaha Nation, Santee Community and Winnebago schools, took part in at UNL this week.
The Science Education Partnership Award camp, funded through a National Institutes of Health grant, is designed to expose tribal school students to science and math, as well as careers in those fields.
Established in 2006, the camp rotates to different college campuses each year, said Liliana Bronner, who teaches in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Several camp alumni have gone on to pursue careers in science or science-related fields, including computer and software engineering, Bronner said.
One student who had the opportunity to brush dinosaur bones while rubbing shoulders with paleontologists at Morrill Hall went onto study paleontology herself, she added.
But the camp also has larger goals.
"We want the students exposed to higher education, to seeing a college campus, to get used to living in a dorm," she said.
Being on a campus such as UNL's, even for a few short days, can make a big difference, particularly within tribal communities.
"As they get older, the thought of college is not as scary, because they have had that experience before," Bronner said.
Mia Regalado, of Winnebago, said living on campus, hearing from scientists and researchers at UNL, and getting dirty during hands-on activities opened her eyes to the opportunities available at college.
The students witnessed a demonstration of how wastewater is cleaned at Nebraska Innovation Campus, measured the pH level of groundwater on East Campus and learned about contaminants at the Water Lab.
Tuesday afternoon, Craig Allen, the unit leader of the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at UNL's School of Natural Resources, explained how his love of animals as a child transformed into a career where he gets to chase otters up and down Nebraska rivers.
"When I was a kid, I had no idea you could get a degree in wildlife," Allen said. "It was a pleasant discovery for me. Hopefully, you can make that discovery sooner."
Regalado, who will be an eighth-grader at South Sioux City this fall, said while she wants to be an attorney, she hasn't ruled out the sciences.
"I like science because of the things you can do, the things you can learn and the ways you can help people," she said.
SongHawk said learning more from UNL scientists and teachers about how they use science in their day-to-day lives will push her to pay closer attention when classes resume this fall.
"I think I'll like it more," SongHawk said.
"You 'think' you'll like it more?" Bronner prodded her.
"I will like it more," SongHawk replied with a smile.