2011 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

EPO Activity: ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp

Project Progress

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp (EMBHSSC) was held from July 24 to August 5, 2011, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This is the fourth consecutive year that RPI has been chosen as one of 25 host institutions in the United States for the EMBHSSC, and the third consecutive year that it has focused on Astrobiology. The EMBHSSC is a free academic program for students, made possible by The Harris Foundation and ExxonMobil: 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.

Bernard Harris (left) with 2011 Summer Science Campers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, July 29, 2011.

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 images). 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 either another world or a remote unique environment of the Earth. The 8 proposals by the student-teams selected mission targets from a list that included Antarctica, the Earth’s deep ocean, the Moon’s South Polar region, Mars, Europa, Ganymede and Titan. During the two intensive and exciting weeks, students also went on field trips to the New York State Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. 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 rocketry. Dr. Harris interacted with students at Media Day, where they participated in “The Space Suit Challenge.”

Camp students check out a dinosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

The lunar lander project team plan their mission proposal.

Scientists associated with the New York Center for Astrobiology participated in many events during the 2011 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 Mars to search for life. 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, and the resulting segments will be broadcast on “The Best of Our Knowledge.”