Close to 100 middle-schoolers from Howard and Frederick counties gathered at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel recently for the 10th annual Space Academy, which employees at the facility hope will encourage the students to pursue a career in space exploration, math and science.
The event, which is sponsored by the laboratory and the Science Channel, gives students a behind-the-scenes look at real space missions. It also allows the students to meet people responsible for some of NASA's projects.
The Oct. 23 event focused on NASA's "next generation" of missions to explore the moon, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its Mini-RF radar instrument, which is scanning the moon's surface for water ice.
"It's another great way to reach audiences and get kids excited," said Michael Buckley, spokesman for the lab. "It's a great field trip. I never had field trips like this growing up. Maybe if I did I might have decided to pursue math or science. It makes it more interesting than reading out of a textbook. Hopefully we'll get some good ones to come back someday."
Clarksville Middle School and Glenelg Country School in Howard County and Walkersville Middle School in Frederick County were the three schools represented in the four-hour event. Students were selected by their individual schools.
At Clarksville Middle School, sixth-graders had to write an essay stating why they wanted to participate in the field trip. The students also had to detail how they would share the information they learned with their classmates. The competition was tough - only 30 students out of a group of more than 100 were chosen, according to Sandy Vinje, the school's sixth-grade science teacher, who has taken her charges on the field trip the past three years.
"They were totally excited about it," Vinje said. "It was totally voluntary. They had to research information about the current missions that they are doing at Hopkins lab. They came up with these awesome questions. They were just excited the whole time. All the way back they were chatting about all the things they had done there."
The event started with a news conference where students got the chance to question space scientists and engineers.
"They come prepared," Buckley said. "They ask really good questions."
The students also watched a series of demonstrations in the lab's spacecraft design and testing facility, which oversees several NASA missions and has built 64 spacecraft over the past five decades. There was even an opportunity for students to participate in a race to see which one could put a "clean suit" on the fastest.
"They really get into that," Buckley said. "The demonstrations are cool. It holds their attention."
Students also get the opportunity to eat lunch with employees of the laboratory.
"It's fantastic," Buckley said. "We get very active participants."
Vinje said she would love to be able to bring her students back to the lab.
"Every time we go back it's something new," Vinje said. "Every time I've gone they've focused on different missions."
"My kids get to see real people getting to do really cool jobs," Vinje said. "It really does influence them as they get older. "