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Astronaut enthralls youngsters at summer camp

June 15, 2010

Students get message about rewards of science and engineering education

[See a Photo Gallery from Media Day at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at ASU]

Veteran U.S. astronaut Bernard Harris shared his experiences in space travel and scientific adventure with about 50 Arizona middle school students June 14 at Arizona State University.

His visit highlights the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp hosted by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The two-week camp, from June 6 to 18 – during which students live on the university’s Tempe campus – is immersing the youngsters in an introduction to space-exploration technology such as rocketry and robotics, as well as the fundamentals of scientific experimentation.

It’s the second consecutive year that ASU is one of 30 universities selected to host the camp designed to inspire children’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math, and teach them about career opportunities in these fields.

Students at this year’s camp are from schools in Phoenix, Oracle, Glendale, Kayenta, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Avondale, Surprise, Laveen, Tolleson, Chinle, Tempe, Window Rock, Goodyear, Mesa, San Luis, El Mirage, Chandler, Tuba City and Ganado.

Through the sponsorship of ExxonMobil and the Harris Foundation, the camp experience is provided free of charge to underserved middle school-aged students.

Advice for the future

Bernard Harris, a physician, scientist and educator, is the founder of the Harris Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports math and science education, and crime prevention programs for America’s youth.

Harris is the first African-American to walk in space. He was a crew member on Space Shuttle Columbia mission in 1992 and on a Space Shuttle Discovery mission in 1995. Harris has logged 438 hours and traveled more than 7.2 million miles in space.

He was joined at the ASU summer camp on June 14 by Deirdre Meldrum, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and ExxonMobil executive Tara McNeely. McNeely is an engineer with an MBA degree whose job with ExxonMobil Global Service Company takes her around the world.

Meldrum and McNeely joined Harris in encouraging students to develop their skills in math and science. The reward may be not only a good job, but a role in making important contributions to the United States and the world, they said.

Experiences in exploration

Campers competed in a “Raft Rally,” requiring them to design and then build small rafts, using aluminum foil and plastic straws. The team with the raft that could stay afloat with the most pennies loaded onto it won the competition. 

Other campers were recognized for their success in capturing images of Mars. Students are learning about space exploration at ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility, where they have been able to take pictures of the planet’s surface using the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera that’s mounted aboard NASA’s Odyssey satellite orbiting Mars. THEMIS was developed at ASU. 

Space exploration is the year’s camp theme. For their main project, “Cosmic Collision: Rock Stars to the Rescue!” students are devising solutions for how to protect life on Earth from a catastrophic collision with a giant asteroid. Plus, they have to figure out how to find and establish a new home for human civilization on another world.

High-tech education

For help with that task, ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility gives students access to data from NASA’s Mars exploration missions.

Wendy Taylor, assistant director of the Mars Space Flight Facility, said she particularly enjoys seeing the students’ amazement “when they realize they are actually commanding a NASA satellite and taking pictures of the planet’s surface.”

Camp instructor Erik Von Burg, a teacher in the Mesa public schools system, said students “are working in groups to build robots that will perform a series of simple tasks within the theme of saving the planet from a catastrophic asteroid. Through building the robots, they’re being introduced to topics such as trigonometry and how to measure angles.”

In addition to science and engineering education, the summer camp projects help teach leadership skills and creative problem-solving, and how to work effectively as a team, Von Burg said.

Benefit of campus living

Eleven-year-old Isaac Anderson, 11, from Coronado Elementary School in Catalina in Pima County, said he was thrilled to meet Harris.  “I like building rockets and learning how engineering and science can impact the world around us,” he said.

Sebastian Jolly, 12, a student at Hawthorne Elementary in Mesa attended the camp in 2009. He recalls the experience fondly. “Meeting Bernard Harris was a great experience,” he said. “It was so fun living on campus and working together with students from all different schools.”

Ally Gee, 11, a student at the Navajo Nation’s Many Farms elementary school said she wants to attend ASU and become an aerospace engineer. “There are a lot of things to look forward to in this camp because the activities are fun, like making rockets and experiments,” she said.

During the camp, students are staying overnight the campus residence hall of ASU’s Barrett, the Honors College.

Twelve-year-old Marily Chavez, a student at Ed Pastor Elementary School in Phoenix, said living in the campus dorms makes her excited to go to college.

“I like the different extracurricular activities, such as bowling, visiting the planetarium on campus and playing games,” she said.

Brittani Solarez, 11, a student at Frank Elementary School in Guadalupe, said she likes staying at the honors college residence “because it’s prestigious.”

She also likes “learning about the craters on Mars.”

And she likes living on campus “because I don’t have to wash dishes.”

Written by Jessica Graham