As most students savor the final weeks of summer vacation, 33 of the state's brightest sixth- and seventh-graders are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk science with the men and women behind some of the most ambitious endeavors in space exploration.
Through the Maryland Summer Centers Program for gifted and talented students, scientifically inclined youngsters have been living a dream come true: For two weeks, continuing through Aug. 14, they are performing experiments, listening to lectures from NASA engineers, and designing their own space exploration mission at the Center for Space Science at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.
"These kinds of external experiences with some of the best and brightest minds in the universe are experiences that we can't replicate in the classroom," said state Superintendent Lillian Lowery, who visited students at the science camp Wednesday. "These summer experiences give students an opportunity to explore their minds and really see what's possible."
The camp is one of nine state summer center programs this year. The slate of programs, offered to students in grades three through 12, includes performing arts at Salisbury University, robot design at Frostburg University and ecosystems education at University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory.
The programs attract applicants from across the state — one family from the Eastern Shore was staying in a Laurel hotel for two weeks so their child could attend the space science camp.
"This kind of experience here where people are constantly creating, innovating and looking at what is possible is an opportunity, especially for students with these kinds of bright minds, to really engage them as they get older and prepare to go into the workplace," Lowery said.
"In many ways, it is planning for our country's future," she said.
The Center for Space Science has housed some of the most prominent missions in recent history, including the New Horizons probe that traveled past Pluto in July.
Students worked in the same seats as the scientists and engineers who commanded the probe as it captured unprecedented images of the dwarf planet.
"It's really kind of a historic place," said APL chief communications officer Patrick Gibbons. "You think about the ghosts in this room — all the science and the knowledge and the experience that have passed through here. It's really quite incredible. And it serves as a touchstone for this next generation of scientists and engineers."
During Lowery's visit, the students were treated to an interactive lecture from Nicola Fox, who has been volunteering with the summer program for 15 years.
"I love it. I get energized to come down every year," Fox said afterward.
Fox is the project scientist for the Solar Probe Plus, which will begin a groundbreaking seven-year mission to study the sun's outer corona in July 2018.
"This isn't basic science. This is extraordinary science. This is keep-you-up-all-night science," she told the students. "This is a mission we've been preparing for since 1958."
For students with a hunger for science, the program offers a feast, exposing them to some of the most cutting-edge developments in modern science.
"I didn't even know about the Solar Probe Plus until I got here, but they've had the idea for it for more than 50 years," said Pooja Arvind, a sixth-grader from Burleigh Manor Middle School. "I thought it was really cool that we're here now as they're actually doing it."
Throughout the two-week experience, students are getting an up-close look at the instrumentation and technology used by the Applied Physics Laboratory, which has managed or contributed to missions to every planet in our solar system. They are also performing lab experiments with liquid nitrogen, designing their own satellites and will hold a mock space launch using bottle rockets.
"I've always been interested in science as long as I can remember, but now I definitely like it a lot more after this," said Katrina McMaster, a seventh-grader from Sudbrook Magnet Middle in Baltimore County.
When other students return to classrooms later this month bearing tales of summer fun and trips to Ocean City, Howard County sixth-grader Preity Desai will tell her peers about designing a mission to outer space and performing experiments with NASA engineers.
"Kids will be like, 'Seriously, you went to school in the summer?'" said Preity. "But I did. And it was awesome."