Lamar summer camp helps students reach for the stars

Our nation’s future lies in the hands of Generation Y -- and thanks to organizations like the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, Otilia Urbina isn’t worried.

“We worry about our country and how we’re not producing leaders,” said Urbina, a research assistant professor of professional pedagogy at Lamar University. “But we have these smart, astute students who come to us with strong character, and they respect the value of education. We’re going to have some leaders.”

Lamar will host the residential camp June 10-22, for the seventh consecutive year. The free camp is designed for underprivileged incoming sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students who excel in mathematics and science. Forty-eight students will participate this year.

Founded by veteran astronaut Bernard Harris Jr., who was the first African-American ever to walk in space, the program immerses students in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based curriculum that aims to enforce critical thinking skills, encourage innovation and reduce summer learning loss.

Harris will visit the Lamar University campus June 15 for camp media day, held from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Dishman Art Museum, where he will discuss his experiences at NASA.

“The program delivers engaging instruction and mentorship to underserved youth at 20 camps across the country,” Harris said via press release. “Through this opportunity, students have access to highly qualified educators and professionals who work to develop students’ leadership and problem-solving skills, which are critical components of success.”

Research from John Hopkins University has shown that once the final bell rings on the last day of school, students can lose as much as two months of grade level equivalent mathematics skills during summer. The decline in learning skills over the summer months was most pronounced in low-income and underrepresented youth, due to a lack of access to summer learning programs. This camp and others like it have become crucial in developing STEM skills in students and helping them retain learned material over the summer. With guidance from field professionals and instructors, the students will engage in hands-on activities such as designing rockets, spacesuits and bridges to nourish their interest and skills in the STEM fields.

The program includes a “Space Day Challenge,” where students will design durable spacesuit swatches using the same household items used by NASA. These suits will be capable of withstanding high-impact micro-meteors and the extreme temperatures astronauts encounter in space. Teams will test the strength of their design using an “impact tester” that mimics the rigors experienced during spacewalks.

Area instructors will show campers science and math at work in the world through workshops, field excursions to local ecosystems and trips to area museums.

Partners include Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center located in Orange, The Big Thicket National Preserve located in Kountze and The Texas A&M AgriLIFE Research Center at Beaumont/Eagle Lake. Each of the collaborating partners offers students an opportunity to engage in real-world, hands-on activities that develop one’s awareness about various aspects of nature, wildlife, the environment and agriculture.

Lamar is one of just 20 college campuses to play host to this camp, Urbina said. Among those 20 are the University of Oklahoma, Temple University, the University of Southern California and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“It’s a very prestigious camp,” Urbina said. “We are providing students who are excelling in math and science an opportunity that gives them a little taste of college life, and hopefully giving them some food for thought and inspiring them to pursue careers in science and math.”

A screening committee determines whether or not the student meets the criteria that has been set in place for admission to the camp. Urbina said that what most makes the program stand out is the fact that it is completely all-expenses paid.

“These students who are excelling would never have the opportunity to participate in something like this,” she said. “They’re the little people who fall through the cracks. This is a $1700 scholarship, and everything is free. They don’t have to bring a thing except their little clothes -- and we give them T-shirts, so they really just have to bring their shorts.

“Lamar is very fortunate and honored to be a part of this. We're able to encourage these students to nurture their academic interests and hopefully end up at Lamar University.”