Camp Inspires Future Scientists and Engineers

July 23, 2009 — School's out for summer, but for one group of students, it's an ideal time to get into science and engineering.

Away from lazy days on the couch or at poolside, middle-school students from across Virginia recently gathered in Charlottesville to participate in the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. The University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science was one of 30 locations across the nation to hold the two-week residency camp in July.

The camp is named for Dr. Bernard Harris, who became a NASA astronaut in 1991 and, in 1995, was the first African-American to walk in space. Now in its third year at U.Va., the camp introduced 51 students to engineering concepts by launching model rockets, working with 3-D animation software and building models of sustainable towns.

"We've not only provided another group of young students with an amazing two weeks on our campus, but we're also doing our part to develop the next leaders of innovation," said camp organizer Carolyn Vallas, director of the U.Va. Center for Diversity in Engineering.

As part of the educational mission of the Bernard Harris Foundation, founded in 1998, the camp is designed to inspire young students, particularly minorities and socio-economically disadvantaged youth, to pursue educations in science, technology, engineering and math – also known as the "STEM" fields.

Through funding from the Harris Foundation and ExxonMobil, the camp is offered at no cost to students who have demonstrated academic achievement and a strong interest in science and technology.

Programs such as this may help to recharge younger generations' interest and performance in STEM fields, Vallas said. It's an educational foundation necessary to refill the ranks of retiring baby-boomer engineers and prepare future engineers who will be called on to develop everything from advances in health care to strengthened cyber security to sustainable energy solutions.

During the camp, students engaged in a science-rich schedule with a variety of classroom studies, group projects, experiments, guest speakers and field trips, all intended to stimulate scientific thinking and the desire to pursue an engineering education in the future.

One of the classroom activities allowed students to work with Alice, a 3-D, object-oriented program developed by the late Randy Pausch, former U.Va. computer science professor and author of "The Last Lecture." The program was designed to introduce students to a series of programming languages through telling stories, playing games and designing videos.

"Allowing the students to use Alice software is a great way to introduce them to programming before they get into the advanced programming sequence with Java and C++," said Akilah Hugine, a Ph.D. candidate in systems engineering at U.Va. and camp instructor. "Advanced programming can be quite tedious, so orienting the students with basic programming concepts through cartoons and animation provides great exposure early on."

In another activity, students built models of "green" towns based on a lesson in sustainable design. Led by Dana Stokes, a sixth-grade science teacher at Henley Middle School in Crozet, students were introduced to sustainable design concepts, sketched their town plans on paper and then built wooden models of what they envisioned as the greenest possible towns. The project required them to address several major sustainability issues such as energy, housing, waste, water, commerce and green spaces.

Stokes was impressed with the campers' enthusiasm and ability to stay on task. For a group of 51 – much larger than her typical middle-school class – that's no small feat.

"I'm glad they're taking it seriously," she said. "I didn't want it to be a project where it was just 'let's cut some wood and put it together on a board.' I wanted it to be thoughtful, and that's what I'm impressed with. These students keep going back to their original plans and thinking about the major issues."

Additionally, campers traveled to Howard University in Washington, D.C., to participate in the "Escape from Harris Island" challenge alongside Harris campers from Bowie State and Howard universities. During the challenge, students worked together using a variety of supplies to construct a raft. They also had the opportunity to work alongside ExxonMobil engineers and scientists during a series of interactive experiments and demonstrations.

Ultimately, this two-week experience allowed the students to gain insight into what it means to be an engineer. The variety of lessons, hands-on activities and field trips also allowed students to discover a type of engineering that might suit them.

"This camp was really a great way for the students to be exposed to the different kinds of engineering they would not normally be exposed to in school," Hugine said. "They discover that there is a kind of engineering for them in an environment that incorporates having fun and learning at the same time."

— By Kathryn Welsh and Zak Richards