June Meltzer had an answer the first day of school when teachers and friends asked the obligatory, “How was your summer?”

“I dissected a cow heart, built a robot and brought it home.”

And that was just a snapshot of one week, during which she participated in the National Youth Leadership Forum: Explore STEM camp on the Loyola University campus in Chicago. Meltzer, a sixth grader at Shelbyville Middle School, was nominated to participate in the prestigious coding and STEM summer camp by a Coulston Elementary teacher.

It wasn’t June’s first experience with the subject matter. She previously participated in Shelbyville Central Schools’ STEM and robotics camps and dissected an owl pellet at Coulston. “My friend kept showing me bat heads, bodies and bones she found. I found absolutely nothing in mine,” Meltzer said of the owl’s mass of undigested food parts.

So she was ready when camp instructors this summer delivered numerous cow hearts in pans along with dissection tools.

“I don’t know how they got their hands on so many,” Meltzer said. Despite the strong “hand sanitizer” smell, she recalls having “no problem doing the work.”

The experience of living in a dorm room with a roommate, however, was new for the 12-year-old daughter of Judge Trent and State Rep. Jenny Meltzer. After checking in and her mom’s departure, June was escorted to a crowded room where she was approached by a man with a microphone. He asked her name and held the microphone to her mouth for the response. He then asked her to sing. “I dodged that one,” she said.

After settling in, her roommate, who came from the Western U.S., wanted to be up at 5 a.m. June negotiated that to 5:45 a.m. “I eventually started sleeping through her alarm,” she said.

Meltzer was pleasantly surprised with the food, noting, “I thought I was going to be eating horrible college food all week.” Instead, she found an “amazing” salad bar. “They had just about every kind of sauce you could think of.”

But the ultimate emphasis was academics. Mornings were allocated for “work mode” in the lab, no talking permitted. Projects were packaged as challenges and mysteries, including one in which groups dropped cow blood from different heights to find solutions.

And she learned first-hand the perils of leadership after she was appointed manager of a student group.

“It’s tough to get everyone on board,” Meltzer said, recalling some group members wanted to do the minimum on the project and others who wanted to dive in without a sufficient plan.

“I tried to organize a meeting, but they were like, ‘We’re busy. We’re hot-gluing.’” 

They managed to finish in time for the presentation, and it turned out fine. In fact, June’s class won the project competition.

The hectic schedule kept her from getting homesick; she only called home a couple of times. When they weren’t in class, activities such as a magician show and dance parties were on the docket. 

The last night featured a student talent show with the likes of origami, solving Rubik's cubes quickly and air guitar. “There was a lot of singing and dancing,” Meltzer said. 

And what did she do?  “I watched. I don’t do talent shows. I do math.”