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May 23, 2013 — Middle school students from Wyoming, as well as from parts of the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains regions, will be transformed into star gazers and scientists during the University of Wyoming’s AstroCamp: Journey to the Stars June 16-25.
During the 10-day, hands-on camp, students will observe the universe with professional telescopes; study astronomical images on computers; construct scientific spectrographs to identify chemical elements; build and launch model rockets; conduct soil tests; create solar ovens; and test their very own Mars landers to see whether, in this case, they can land an egg softly enough without breaking it.
“We hope they see college as part of their future and hope they are excited by STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” says Chip Kobulnicky, a UW associate professor of physics & astronomy. “STEM fields offer exciting careers for students who can be turned on to science in junior high rather than turned off. These will be tomorrow’s leaders and problem solvers.”
UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in cooperation with the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium, was selected to host one of 20 ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camps. This is UW’s fourth year to host the prestigious camp.
Founded in 1998 by Bernard A. Harris Jr., the Harris Foundation is a Houston, Texas-based nonprofit organization that invests in community-based initiatives to support education and health. Harris is best known as the first African-American astronaut to walk in space and as a NASA researcher.
Students entering the sixth, seventh and eighth grades -- from Wyoming, western Nebraska, northern Colorado and western South Dakota -- were encouraged to apply. The free academic camp supports historically underserved and underrepresented students with limited opportunities. Forty-eight students were chosen for the camp.
Professional astronomers; UW graduate students majoring in astronomy or education; and high school and junior high science teachers will lead the activities.
Daniel Dale, a professor and chair of UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, co-created the AstroCamp with Kobulnicky in 2002. For seven years, the two ran a smaller version of what today is a camp experience funded to the tune of $80,0000 by ExxonMobil and the Harris Foundation.
“ExxonMobil is committed to encouraging student interest in science and math,” says Suzanne McCarron, ExxonMobil Foundation president. “These camps are one way to equip our nation’s youth with skills needed to be competitive in an increasingly global economy.”
Campers will attend classes that include problem solving,
earth sciences, engineering and design concepts. Field excursions will include an
overnight camping trip under the stars near UW’s
Wyoming Infrared Observatory on Jelm Mountain. Students will investigate the scientific, technological and biological factors that will be required to travel to distant planets and stars.
“Each kid gets to pick a star and conduct a research project,” Kobulnicky says. “They will determine whether it is a star that can support planets and be an inhabitable solar system.”
As part of the STEM-based curriculum, students will participate in a space day competition, where they will be challenged to create and design durable spacesuit swatches, using household items that mimic protective materials. Teams will test the strength of their samples using an impact tester that imitates the rigors experienced during space walks. Harris will lead the students through this exercise June 19, which is the camp’s official media day.
“We see if it (a spacesuit swatch) can stop a speeding projectile,” Kobulnicky says.
Additionally, Harris will tell the students the story of his life’s path and how he obtained his dream of becoming an astronaut. He will join the students for lunch and sign autographs.
“We’re excited about Bernard Harris coming again,” Kobulnicky says “It’s not every day you have an astronaut come to campus.”
Campers are chosen based on demonstrated interest and academic potential in math, science, astronomy or space. Students need to have at least a “B” average in science and mathematics, and a passing score on the state’s standardized science and mathematics tests. As part of the application process, students had to submit a written essay (250 words or less) on why they wanted to attend the science camp.
Students will live in a residence hall (boys and girls will reside in separate wings) under staff supervision. Travel scholarships are available.
Students who attend the AstroCamp will be invited back to campus in October to tour the Wyoming Infrared Observatory and again, during the following spring, for the LEGO Robot Competition, Kobulnicky says.
Astronaut Bernard Harris is about to drop a metal punch onto a spacesuit sample to determine whether the sample can prevent a puncture from the projectile. (Lauren Lucas Photo)