For 40 rising ninth graders, four days in classrooms at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, could’ve gone either way — some students worried they’d be lectured at for eight hours a day, while others thought they’d have a lot of busy work.
“I didn’t know what we’d be doing,” said one student. “I figured we’d be at our desks all day working.”
While that may be true for full time NASA employees, the campers’ experiences were different by design.
From egg drops, to mBot battles, to a 100-foot drop test at the Landing and Impact Research Facility, participants in the Junior Game Changer camp were introduced to a number of science, technology, engineering and math concepts meant to be both fun and educational.
“It’s a really fun experience if you like hands-on activities,” said student Stephanie Omondiale, who particularly enjoyed the lesson in computer aided design (CAD).
“I really enjoyed doing the CAD, which is a program where you start with a 2D design and then eventually turn it into a 3D design,” she explained. “I had never done it before – it was pretty cool, I liked it.”
Student Jean Ralat learned how to program code quicker than he expected. “I had never done it before, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in now,” he said.
The four-day summer camp is managed by NASA’s Game Changing Development (GCD) Program and augments Newport News Public Schools System’s three-week STEMulating Minds summer program. STEMulating Minds is a free offering for rising freshman in Heritage High School’s Governor’s STEM Academy. The Academy is designed to raise students’ aspirations and expand their options, whether in STEM-related college studies or technical careers. This is the second year of the Junior Game Changer Camp.
“We really wanted to reach diverse students who might not otherwise get the chance to come to a NASA facility or who might not realize they have the potential to have a career as an engineer, scientist, programmer or in other STEM fields,” said GCD Education and Public Outreach Manager Amy McCluskey.
Speakers such as Langley’s Anna McGowan and Ed Healy, along with NASA Headquarters representatives Diego Rodriguez and Damien Taylor, took time out of their day to inspire the students and deliver the message that not everyone’s path is the same.
Rodriguez, for example, grew up on a farm in Argentina. He then played soccer for a national team before he took a job managing the internship program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. McGowan’s family immigrated from Haiti with a couple suitcases to their names.
What makes this camp truly unique is that four NASA Internships, Fellowships and Scholarships interns within the GCD office ran the entire camp from start to finish.
“From curriculum development, lesson plans and logistics, to documenting the camp with videos and photos, our four interns should be commended for all their hard work and dedication,” said acting GCD Program Manager Mary Beth Wusk. “By enlisting the help of young college students, the camp becomes even more relatable to the rising high schoolers.”
For GCD intern Sarah-James Miles, a physics major at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, the camp reminded her of what it means to be a “learner.”
“Sometimes, during the summer months as a college student, I get out of ‘the learning zone,’ but while teaching lessons at the camp, I was taken back to that zone,” Miles said. “It was refreshing, and it showed me how truly dedicated to learning the students were. It gave me hope for the next generation of students.”
Along with Miles, interns Abishek Routray, Rubin Soodak and Zac Pyle formed the dream team that executed the camp without a hitch.
“They are a great bunch of interns and each will go far in life,” McCluskey said. “Running the summer camp gave them project management skills, team building experience and, most importantly, insight into what it’s like to work full-time in a demanding environment.”
The ultimate camp experience came on the last day and involved creating a payload with an mBot, cardboard boxes, packaging materials and parachutes. Thrown in with the hands-on creation of the parachute and robotics were lessons in entry, descent and landing.
On the last day 12 teams each took their payload to Langley’s Landing and Impact Research Facility where the goal was to see how each payload survived a 100-foot descent from the top of a man-lift. Student teams were able to choose their parachute design, stabilization materials and methods as well as landing gear. Go-Pro cameras were added to the payloads for extra analysis post-testing.
The drop tests were a success and so was the camp. All the robots survived, as well as the students.