U.Va. Engineering School Hosts Interactive Science and Math Camp for Middle School Students

July 6, 2010 — While many middle school-aged students are spending their summer days at the local pool, those participating in the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science are escaping the heat by diving into a fun, two-week adventure in math and science. From July 5-16, campers will explore relevant topics such as sustainability, energy, clean water and robotics as they learn about exciting career opportunities available to them through science, technology, engineering and math, also known as the STEM fields.

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 fourth year at U.Va., the camp will introduce more than 50 underrepresented and underserved middle school students to engineering concepts by launching model rockets, working with 3-D animation software and building models of sustainable towns.

Harris and ExxonMobil have partnered since 2006 to provide the two-week residential camp free of charge to underrepresented and underserved middle school students at 30 college campuses across the country. This year, the U.Va. Engineering School will host the only camp in Virginia.

Harris will visit the U.Va. camp July 9 to talk with the young students about his time as an astronaut and the benefits of pursuing an education in the STEM fields. He will be joined by former astronaut Kathryn Thornton, dean of graduate programs at the U.Va. Engineering School, who has taught at the U.Va.-hosted camp for the past four years. Each year, she helps students build and then launch model rockets to teach important lessons in math and science.

"We believe in making a positive difference in attracting a larger and more diverse group of students to the STEM fields," said camp organizer Carolyn Vallas, director of the U.Va. Center for Diversity in Engineering. "Whether our campers are learning chemistry through a mock crime scene investigation or talking with former astronauts, the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris camp allows us to bring science and math to life for these students."

George Cahen, professor of materials science and engineering and director of experiential programs at the Engineering School, has taught at the camp for the past four years. He introduces campers to trigonometry and helps them build inclinometers so they can measure the altitude of their model rocket launches.

"We want to show them a simple way to measure altitude so they can see whose rocket performs the best," said Cahen. "We introduce them to using math in a practical application which is the essence of engineering. When you are teaching trigonometry in the classroom, students may say, 'Why do I care about this? I'm not going to talk with my friends about relationships of angles,' but they probably will talk about it in terms of how well their model rocket performed."

Throughout the two weeks, campers are taught by university faculty and graduate students, attend daily classes in natural science, engineering, mathematics and technology and enjoy activities including classroom study, experiments, individual and team projects, weekly field excursions and inspirational guest speakers. As part of their educational experience, the campers also work side-by-side with engineers and other professionals who are accomplished in their chosen technology-related careers.

"ExxonMobil is committed to engaging the next generation of creative minds, thinkers and developers who will keep the United States competitive," said Suzanne McCarron, president of ExxonMobil Foundation. "By partnering with Dr. Harris, we are able to reach talented students and provide them with an experience that could lead them to pursue a career in math, science, engineering or technology."

On Friday, campers will participate in an "ExxonMobil Media Day," which will be held in the U.Va. Chemistry Building auditorium and lobby. During the event, Harris, Margaret Parnell, vice president for planning and technology with ExxonMobil Lubricants and Specialties, Del. David J. Toscano and others will speak to the campers. The campers will also participate in the exciting experiment, "Escape from Harris Island." They will build rafts from limited supplies and face off in an intense competition to test their newly acquired engineering skills.

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

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About ExxonMobil Foundation

ExxonMobil Foundation is the primary philanthropic arm of Exxon Mobil Corporation in the United States. The foundation and the corporation engage in a range of philanthropic activities that advance education, health and science in the communities where ExxonMobil has significant operations. In the United States, ExxonMobil supports initiatives to improve math and science education at the K-12 and higher education levels.

About The Harris Foundation

Founded in 1998, The Harris Foundation is a 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization based in Houston, Texas, whose overall mission is to invest in the community through innovative education, health and wealth programs. The foundation supports programs that empower individuals and their communities, in particular minorities and economically and/or socially disadvantaged, to develop and pursue their dreams. The educational mission of the Harris Foundation is to enable youth to develop and achieve their full potential through the support of social, recreational and educational programs.

About the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science

Founded in 1836, the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science [link to ] combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society. At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University's highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,200 undergraduates and 700 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of engineering disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering and nanotechnology, and energy and the environment.