Space Suit Challenge Helps Launch Students into STEM Careers

July 6, 2011 — In the University of Virginia's Mechanical Engineering Building, 95 middle-schoolers in aqua shirts huddled in small groups last Thursday and diligently measured, cut and glued paper plates and tinfoil. This was  no ordinary craft activity – these children were designing space suits.

Selected middle-school students from across Virginia converged this month at the School of Engineering and Applied Science for the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris summer science camp. This is the fifth year that U.Va. has hosted the program.

The free, two-week camp, sponsored by The Harris Foundation Inc., and the ExxonMobil Foundation and hosted by the U.Va. Center for Diversity in Engineering, aims to get students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the "STEM" fields – at an early age. To stimulate and preserve interest in these disciplines, the camp engages students in learning activities designed to be fun and interactive and introduces them to leaders in the field. 

The goal of the "Space Suit Challenge" was to understand how an object's kinetic energy affects the impact an object has upon a surface. Groups of six to seven students were given 20 minutes to cooperatively design and create a swatch of simulated space suit from common household materials. The swatch had to use at least four materials, fall within the range of dimensions between 10- by10 centimeters and 10- by15 centimeters, and consist of exactly 14 layers. When finished, it had to withstand puncture from the force of a falling center punch, which represented a micrometeroid in outer space. Additionally, the campers had to take into account the price of the materials, losing points for layers punctured and gaining points for dollars saved.

One team from U.Va. and one from campers visiting for the day from Howard University won the challenge with the highest point score and an average of six out of 14 layers not punctured. The students were rewarded with a choice of prizes from ExxonMobil, such as hats, shirts, mouse pads and calculators.

The event drew numerous speakers, including special guest and camp namesake Dr. Bernard Harris, the first African-American to walk in space; Barry Johnson, senior associate dean of the Engineering School and associate dean for research; and Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris.

Harris spoke of watching Buzz Aldrin land on the moon in 1969 when Harris was not much older than the campers themselves, only 13, and deciding he was going to be an astronaut. He shared with the campers the encouragement his mother, who was an educator, had given him.

"You have the ability to do anything you want in life," she told him. He added, "but you have to work for it. You have to make a commitment now."

Harris has served as an astronaut, physician and businessman, and is founder and president of The Harris Foundations Inc., a nonprofit organization that aims to enhance math and science education and crime prevention programs for America's youth.

Margaret Parnell, ExxonMobil's vice president of technology, and senior chemical engineer Tracie Andrews addressed the students about the career opportunities in math and science.

"These skills you're getting, and which I hope you continue, are going to help you so well in your careers," Parnell said. She encouraged the students to use creative thinking and teamwork along with math and science, saying these are tools she uses in her job every day.

When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, students' answers ranged from obstetrician to orthodontist; aerospace engineer to cardiologist; computer technologist to systems engineer. All of the speakers stressed the campers' potential and encouraged them to continue with math and sciences, not only for their personal benefit, but also to help scientific and technological advances for the world as a whole.

"You were born for a reason. There is something that you ought to do," Harris said, addressing the students. He added that only the individual could determine what their purpose is. "If you don't figure it out, it's not just a loss to you, it's a loss to the rest of us."

Andrews stressed that everyone in the room would face obstacles, and invited them to look at these as opportunities. They would meet people who will tell them things they can't do; she encouraged the students to look at these situations as a chance to prove those people wrong.

The speakers expressed confidence that the young people who participate in science camp today could be leaders in the academic and professional STEM fields tomorrow.

Said Andrews, "Continue to grow, and hopefully our paths will cross again sometime in the future."

For information, visit the summer science camp site.

— by Kate Colwell

Media Contact

Zak Richards

Senior Writer/SEAS