Which one of these is a meteorite?" asks Diane Cochrell, a science teacher from Long Reach High School in Columbia, Md., pointing to a pile of rocks. She's challenging 31 middle school students who came to APL last month to attend the laboratory's first-ever science camp. Although the meteorite is mingled with plain stones and a piece of magnetite, most students are able to pick it out using information they've just learned from Cochrell's course, Investigating Meteorites.
The course was part of an intense but fun-filled two-week space adventure during which students talked to scientists in APL's space facilities, visited the National Air and Space Museum, grappled with hard science topics, became amateur astronomers, launched soda-bottle rockets, designed NASA Discovery missions and built spacecraft to carry out these missions.
Connie Finney, of the Public Affairs Office, initiated the camp, which was one of the 1998 Maryland Summer Centers for Gifted and Talented Students and the only center in Howard County. The centers are supported by grants from the Maryland State Department of Education. "Our theme was space," Finney says. "These are shuttle-age kids. Space is part of their everyday world, and it's natural for them to want to know more about it."
To help campers learn about craters, science teacher Doug Spicher of Elkridge Landing Middle School, Elkridge, Md., dropped a variety of plastic spheres and flattened marbles from different heights and at various angles into beds of flour and sand. "Now when they see a crater they'll be able to tell whether it was formed by impact or by volcanic action," Spicher says.
Spicher says that by designing a Discovery mission students gained a new awareness of what goes into a space mission. "They now have an idea of the power required for a spacecraft to reach another planet and the instruments it'll need to conduct studies there," he says. Spicher says he's excited about APL's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission and that he plans to engage students with the mission through the NEAR Web site during the coming year.
Science teacher Michelle Bagley from Centennial High School, Ellicott City, Md., led the campers in creating space travel brochures. Tom Payne, Gifted and Talented Program coordinator for Howard County, says the science camp at APL had 80 applications for the 31 spots and drew students from as far away as Hagerstown and the Eastern Shore. "One of the most important things they learned was how to work as a team," he said.
Adam Mirvis of Severna Park Middle School, Severna Park, Md., headed a four-man team that designed a mission and spacecraft to study Mercury. Asked "Why Mercury?" he says the planet has never been mapped and that it would be interesting to check out the sodium and potassium in its atmosphere. Holding an aluminum-foil model of the spacecraft, Mirvis points out various instruments it would use to map the planet's surface, look for craters and study its atmosphere and magnetosphere.
"We learned how to get answers to science questions with a limited amount of money," Mirvis says. "That's why we'll use a Delta Two rocket--it gets us there, but it doesn't cost a lot."
Finney says she hopes to repeat the science camp next year. That would be good news for Paul Bianco of Chestertown, Md., who drove his son, Jim, to camp 78 miles one-way each day. "This is a wonderful, positive idea, and I hope it continues," Bianco says. "I've got two younger kids I want to bring to this camp."