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Space camp helps kids launch love of science

While many of her friends spent the summer swimming or going to amusement parks, 11-year-old Asley Ventura, of Laurel, had fun participating in a space camp at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

During the two-week camp, Asley and about 30 other sixth- and seventh- graders worked closely with APL scientists and engineers on various projects and learned of the national security and space exploration work they do at APL. The students also saw a prototype of the giant heat shield that's attached to the front of space crafts, took field trips to space museums and had a chance to meet astronauts who had gone on actual space missions.

At the end of last week, Asley worked enthusiastically with other students on long lab tables in a small auditorium at APL.

"I love science and think it's amazing and interesting because you get a chance to do stuff you didn't know could happen," she said.

Last year, Asley attended Laurel Woods Elementary School and was enrolled in its gifted and talented program. The space camp is one of 11 programs statewide that the Maryland State Department of Education runs for gifted and talented students. The camps focus on the arts, computer science, global languages, the environment and space exploration. More than 500 of Maryland's gifted and talented students are enrolled in the summer camps, getting lessons that go beyond regular classroom instruction.

"We went to see a satellite and we made a model of a satellite out of cardboard. I never would have gotten the chance to build a satellite in school," Asley said. "The only thing we do in school is study electricity and magnetism, but we get to do a whole lot more here."

Seated not far from Ventura was Panav Desai Gududuri, an 11-year-old who attended Fulton Elementary School last year and was enrolled in its math and science program for gifted and talented students. He said he was ecstatic when he learned he would be attending the camp.

"I have a fascination with math and science and I'm good at both, but I applied for the space camp because I wanted to get more involved in science," said Panav, who wants to be an aerospace systems engineer for NASA some day. "I have GT [gifted and talented] science next year and I thought this would be good training for me for next year. It's been fun."

Fun for Panav and the other space campers involved designing a space probe for a potential NASA mission. In groups of three, they built probe models using cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminum foil and lots of duct tape. They had to come up with a question that NASA scientists do not have answers for currently, that their pretend unmanned probe could explore on a mission.

"Our project's unmanned mission would go to Venus and find out what the planet's core is made out of," Panav said. "They think they know but they're not sure."

APL solar probe scientist Dr. Nicky Fox, who has worked with the space camp for 12 years, said she has come to expect curiosity from the campers.

"Every year I'm blown away by how bright these students are, how enthusiastic they are and the questions they ask," Fox said. "I can't believe they come up with the questions they raise, never mind I probably don't know the answers to them. They're amazing and a joy to work with."

In walking around the room to browse the students' models, Fox said it was obvious to her trained eye that the students have done their research on what their probes and the instruments needed to carry out their specific mission should look like.

"This is not just a cardboard box," she said, pointing to one model. "This is a spectrometer and this is a particle detector. They've made them look realistic."

But the main thing Fox hoped the students take away from the camp when it's over is to have an appreciation for teamwork.

"I hope they realize by working together in teams that it isn't just one person that makes a plan happen. It takes a village to make a mission happen and everybody has to work together with shared goals," Fox said.

Sharing a 'love of science'

That sense of teamwork was obvious as the campers took a break from their projects to build rockets from plastic bottles that they filled with water for launching. The students used APL's front lawn for their launch pad and applauded loudly as their rockets soared into the air, spewing the water behind them.

After making sure the students were a safe distance from the launcher and properly pulling the string that launched their rockets, the camp's director, Lindsay Jones, a Baltimore County physics teacher, said in addition to having a thirst for the material they learn here, the students enjoy being in a setting where others share their love of science.

"Sometimes students like this get teased at school, but they thrive in an environment like this," Jones said. "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 tell them that I'm a space nerd. I own it and they should too."

The gifted and talented summer camps cost $250 but needs-based scholarships are available. Jones hopes to recruit more low-income students for next year's program because the camp not only exposes them to information they don't get in a regular class setting, but allows them to meet professionals in the field to fine-tune their future career goals. Asley said the program solidified her goal of working in the space industry.

"I want to be an engineer and build instruments and machinery to collect pollutants in the atmosphere that have to do with global warming," Asley said. "I'm concerned about global warming because it affects all of us and I want to do something about it."

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