2009 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

EPO Activity: ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp

Project Progress

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp (BHSSC) was held from June 14 to June 26, 2009, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The theme of the camp was “The Quest for Life”. This was the second consecutive year that RPI had been chosen as one of the 30 host institutions in the United States for the BHSSC (but the first time that it has focused on Astrobiology). A total of 50 middle school students in grades 5, 6 and 7 with proven interest in mathematics and science took part in the two-week session.

The goal of the Science Camp was for the students to propose missions to search for life on another world. The 8 proposals by the student-teams selected Mars, Europa, or Titan for their missions to search for life. During the two exciting weeks, students also went on several field trips, to the Albany Pine Bush, the New York State Museum, the Herkimer Diamond Mine, and the New York Museum of Natural History. They also had an opportunity for night-time viewing with the 16-inch telescope at the Rensselaer Observatory. The students also learned about NASA’s missions to the Moon from a NAI scientist, and were excited to watch the liftoff of the Atlas-V rocket on NASA-TV carrying the LRO and LCROSS spacecraft to the Moon. Students also took many classes and completed many activities dealing with topics such as life, astronomy, space exploration, the cosmic calendar, the Drake Equation, and satellites and geocaching.

The BHSSC is a free academic program of The Harris Foundation, which takes an active role in shaping education in students entering grade 6,7, or 8. The program is named after Bernard A. Harris, MD, an accomplished NASA astronaut, physician and entrepreneur; Dr. Harris, the first African American to walk in space, plays an active role in the Summer Science Camp program and other programs for underserved youths. He vividly described his experiences of traveling into Earth orbit on the space shuttle, and his perspectives on his space walk, during his address to the camp participants at RPI on June 22, 2009.

Scientists associated with the New York Center for Astrobiology participated in several events during the 2009 BHSSC (the first day program, laboratory tours, and judging of the eight proposals during the oral and poster presentations). The team with the proposal that was deemed by the scientists to be the best developed (Team 5) was for a mission to Europa to search for life. The students on Team 5 and Camp Director Cynthia Smith were invited for interview at the WAMC Northeast Public Radio studios in Albany, NY. The resulting segments were subsequently broadcast on the Best of Our Knowledge in October 2009 (shows 995 and 996).