2010 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

EPO Activity: ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp

Project Progress

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp (EMBHSSC) was held from June 13 to June 25, 2010, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This is the third consecutive year that RPI has been chosen as one of the 30 host institutions in the United States for the EMBHSSC, and the second consecutive year that it has focused on Astrobiology. The EMBHSSC is a free academic program of The Harris Foundation: its goal is to take a proactive role in shaping the science education of 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.

A total of 50 middle school students from underserved communities and with proven interest in mathematics and science took part in the two-week session at RPI (see accompanying image). The theme of the camp was “The Quest for Life”: the challenge for the participating students was to propose a mission to search for life on another world. The 8 proposals by the student-teams selected Mars, Europa, Ganymede or Titan as the target for their mission. During the two intensive and exciting weeks, students also went on field trips to the Albany Pine Bush, the New York State Museum, the Connecticut Dinosaur State Park, and the American Museum of Natural History (where they met with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium). They also had an opportunity for night-time viewing with the 16-inch telescope at the Rensselaer Observatory and to learn about NASA missions from NAI scientists. Students 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. Dr. Harris interacted with students in the camp via a skype connection.

Scientists associated with the New York Center for Astrobiology participated in many events during the 2010 EMBHSSC, including the first day program, laboratory tours, project development sessions, 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 was for a mission to Europa to search for life. The students in the winning team, together with Camp Director Cynthia Smith and Science Teacher Seamus Hodgkinson, 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 September and October 2010 (shows 1045 and 1046).