U.Va. Engineering School Combats Summer 'Brain Drain' With Science Camp for Middle School Students

June 23, 2011 — Virginia middle school students are curing the summer "brain drain" with a heavy dose of science, technology, engineering and math fun at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, hosted by the University of Virginia Center for Diversity in Engineering. The hands-on program, which is now under way, offers 54 Virginia middle school students an exciting way to beat the heat as they design spacesuits, build rockets and more while experiencing life on a college campus. The camp runs until July 1.

"Summer learning opportunities are crucial to continued academic success," said Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., veteran astronaut and camp founder. "In partnership with the ExxonMobil Foundation, we are able to offer students a tremendous opportunity to hone the math, science, communications and leadership skills needed to realize their full potential. Our goal is to inspire them to reach beyond the classroom and pursue careers in critical technology fields."

During an upcoming "Space Day" event on June 30 at 11 a.m., the U.Va. campers and 48 fellow campers from Howard University will become spacesuit engineers for the day, tasked with designing and creating a spacesuit swatch capable of absorbing the impact of space debris. Using household items to mimic essential protective materials, students will assemble a test sample for friendly competition. Using an "impact tester" to imitate the rigors faced during spacewalks, students will test the durability of their samples.

As part of "Space Day," Harris will speak to the campers about his journey to become the first African-American to walk in space and the extreme elements he encountered during his historic spacewalk.  They will also hear from Margaret Parnell, vice president of technology at ExxonMobil, about her science and technology career experience. The presentations begin at 10 a.m.

For the sixth consecutive year, the ExxonMobil Foundation has collaborated with Harris and his nonprofit organization, The Harris Foundation, to provide residential camps to underrepresented and underserved middle school students at 25 universities across the country. This is the fifth year U.Va. has participated in the program.

The demand for workers with strong science, technology, engineering and math skills is significant, as eight out of 10 of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation are in the so-called "STEM" fields, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The camp program aims to fill this critical need by offering a curriculum that features hands-on experiments, team competitions and field excursions to help students build essential skills. Campers receive instruction from local educators and hear from ExxonMobil engineers about the exciting and rewarding aspects of their profession.

"We have seen this experience positively impact youth in our community, and we look forward to witnessing our students' dramatic growth as they gain valuable knowledge and a passion for math and science this summer," said Carolyn Vallas, director of both the Center for Diversity in Engineering and U.Va.'s ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. "We understand the important role STEM programs such as these play in preparing students for the high-tech careers of tomorrow."

For more information, visit the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp website.

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Zak Richards

Senior Writer/SEAS