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Probing Space With Cardboard, Foil And Duct Tape

  More than 500 students in Maryland’s Gifted and Talented programs are going beyond regular classroom instruction at camps this summer.

They’re learning more about the arts, computer science, languages, and the environment and at one camp, space travel.

About 30 sixth and seventh graders spent the last two weeks exploring the labs and equipment of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, where engineers and scientists work on national security and space exploration projects.

“They got to see our testing facility and even some of the hardware for our solar probe plus mission, which will be the first to go up close to the sun and take data from its corona,” said Dr. Nicky Fox, an APL project scientist. “They also saw a prototype of one of our characteristic pieces of equipment, a giant heat shield that we carry at the front of our spacecraft. This gave them an idea of how big some of these things are.”

In a small auditorium at APL, 11-year-old Nathan Tang and his teammates worked on building a model of an unmanned space probe out of cardboard, foil and duct tape. Their pretend probe’s destination is Saturn’s moon Titan. “It has a multi-spectral imager, so our main overarching question is to see where the methane in Titan's atmosphere comes from,” Tang said. “We believe it could be from the volcanoes on the surface.”

In addition to working on their model, Tang and the others took field trips to space-related museums and heard NASA astronauts and APL engineers and scientists talk about their work. For their projects, the students had to come up with questions that NASA does not know the answers to about earth, which could possibly be explored on future unmanned probe missions.

Ellicott City 11-year-old Panav Gududuri’s group’s question involves Venus. “What is Venus' core composed of?” Gududuri said proudly. “They (NASA scientists) think they know, but they're not sure. Since NASA is going to be doing all this, they don’t want to waste money on a project they already know the answer to.”

Seated several spaces down the long lab table from Gududuri, Samantha Wilt’s team worked on a power point presentation about their proposed probe, which would explore one of Saturn’s moons for microbes. Wilt, from Baltimore, said the camp is perfect for her because she wants to be an aerospace engineer. “I've always enjoyed science and all of the satellites and probes that go into space. As soon as I saw it I knew it was going to be fun,” she said.

And serious, too, because Fox and other APL staff closely monitor the students’ work.

“I'm blown away at how bright these children are, how enthusiastic, how they ask questions," Fox said. “I can't believe they could even think of that question, never mind I probably don't know the answer.”

In walking around the auditorium, Fox said it's obvious that the students researched what their probe models should look like and they've stayed within their budgets. But she said the main thing she hopes the students take away from camp is an “appreciation for teamwork.”

“It isn't just one person that makes a plan happen but a village that makes a mission happen and everybody has to work together,” she said.

To give the students a break from working on their projects inside and also to teach them about aerodynamics, they walked enthusiastically to the large lawns in front of the APL building. There, they launched rockets they made from water bottles. The students got a kick out of seeing their colorfully designed bottles soar into the air, with the water contents spewing behind.

The camp's director Lindsay Jones, a Baltimore County physics teacher, uses this experiment and others from the camp with her 11th graders. “I talk about space as much as I can in my physics class because it's something kids don't get a lot of in high school,” Jones said. “So, I bring a lot of the things I learn here back, cool facts and amazing stuff of missions.”

Jones, in her fifth year as the summer camp’s director, said the campers are thirsty for the material they learn here. They also enjoy being in a setting where others share their love of science. I had one parent, told me when they dropped their kid off that he was so excited to be among his peers for the two weeks and be able to talk about this stuff and not worry about getting teased. I'm a space nerd. I own it and they should too,” she said.

This is the 47th year the summer camps for gifted and talented students have operated in Maryland. They are funded by private donors and cost $250 to attend. Needs-based scholarships are available for low income students. “We have usually have three or four students on scholarships and have two this year,” Jones said. “We plan to try and recruit more lower income students in Baltimore County and Baltimore city for next year’s program.”