The next generation of space explorers is getting an out-of-this-world experience right in Newark.
For the next 10 days, 52 innovative students will learn about the universe at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, an intensive program centered around around science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
The camp, held at New Jersey Institute of Technology for the sixth year, was created 16 years ago by retired NASA astronaut Bernard Harris, who became the first African American to walk in space in 1995. The camp is the only in New Jersey and one of 20 in the nation held this summer, an expansion made possible by a partnership between Harris' foundation and ExxonMobil in recent years.
The hope is the camp will spawn a new generation of NASA scientists and engineers by providing sixth-, seventh- and eight-grade boys and girls – particularly those from economically disadvantaged communities – fun and educational hands-on lessons in the celestial industry.
"The National Science Foundation, NASA and ExxonMobil recognized that there was going to be a problem with recruiting (new) engineers and scientists," said Harris of the camp's purpose. "It's such a critical (age). You either keep them excited about math and science or they lose it, especially girls. This is critical for girls."
Harris, as well as engineers from ExxonMobil's New Jersey plant, were on hand Wednesday as students designed space suits strong enough to withstand the impact of potentially dangerous meteoroids, small chunks of rocks and debris found in space.
Divided into groups of four, students had $120 of imaginary money to purchase supplies like wax and copy paper, foam, paper plates, card stock and aluminum foil to create layered swatches of the space suit in just 20 minutes. The durability of the suits were then tested by being punctured with a heavy pointed rod that acted as the meteoroid. (Watch video above.)
The winners of the most sustainable space suit? Team 11, which constructed their swatch using a folded paper plate cushioned within layers of foam and card stock.
"It (the mock meteoroid) didn't penetrate because it had a lot of foam, a shock absorber," explained Team 11 member Kathlyne Casimir, an upcoming seventh grader at Grace Wilday School in Roselle.
Having spent five hours floating 250 nautical miles above Earth's surface, Harris knows the importance of a well-made space suit, which are comprised of multiple layers, like woven Kevlar, that absorb energy and allow for the retention of oxygen.
"It's beautiful," said Harris about his time in space. "You get to see Earth as I believe God sees it. You see the big blue ball on the backdrop of the Milky Way."
More than 300 youngsters applied for a spot at the New Jersey camp this year, a rigorous application process that requires letters of recommendation, a written essay and review of academic records. The 52 students accepted, divided evenly between boys and girls from all over New Jersey and New York, are all stellar math and science students, according to Suzanne Berliner-Heyman, executive director of the camps NJIT offshoot.
Later this week and next, students will take a trip to Liberty Science Center for a movie on space junk, the Buehler Challenger and Science Center at Bergen Community College for a simulated space mission and the ExxonMobil site in Clinton.
With the theme of this year's camp "A Toy Story: Energy in Motion on Earth and in Space," the student teams are tasked with having to build a futuristic children's toy that will hold up in zero-gravity environment.
Quiya Harris, 11, said her team will likely create an arcade game or racetrack that toy cars can float on for the project that will be presented to parents on the last day of camp.
Harris, a student at Washington Elementary School in West Orange and whose team came in third place in the space suit challenge, hopes to one day become a chemical engineer.
"My favorite part was creating the astronaut suit," said Harris, "because we got to work together and we got to create something that could've ... actually been used."
For Neftali Granados, of Newark's Camden Street School, the camp is strengthening her love for science. The upcoming sixth grader aspires to one day become a botanist to determine how to use plants in place of harmful chemicals.
"I want to save the earth," she said.
Other campers from Essex County included Fiona Mondestin from Pride Academy in East Orange, Sarai Jones from Edison Middle School in West Orange, Peter Emanuelli from Charles H. Bullock School in Montclair, Jordan Andrews from Montclair Kimberley Academy School in Montclair, and, from Newark, Osmane Sanogo from Camden Street School, Rouwaida Nitiema from Newark Early College High School, Shannon Wilson from Team Academy School as well as Joshua Agbadon, Ryan Welch and Jamara Johns, all from North Star Academy School.
Watch the video above for more information.