Take Flight: Students to Build Spaceships at NJIT -- with Help from an Astronaut

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at NJIT.

A group of middle-school students will build spaceships at NJIT -- and they’ll have help from Bernard Harris, the first black astronaut to walk in space.

The spaceship project, called The Mars Lander Challenge, is part of the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, which encourages low-income minority students to study science.

Engineers from the ExxonMobil Research Labs visit NJIT and help the students construct their model space crafts. It’s the 8th summer that NJIT has housed the free, two-week long camp. The 52 students stay in an NJIT dorm during the week to get a sense of what a college campus is like.   

The students will divide into teams of five and design their space crafts from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday in the NJIT Atrium. During that time, there will be a competition to see which team designed the strongest spaceships. Harris will consult the students by Skype.

The students in the camp are bright and able. To get accepted into the camp, they must have good grades and test scores and letters of reference from their teachers. Most are from Newark (19 of them) but other students are from Belleville, E. Orange, W. Orange, Jersey City, Kearny, Englewood, Union, White Township and New York City. 

The camp is run by The Center for Pre-College Programs at NJIT, which, since 1978, has offered STEM summer classes and programs to traditionally underrepresented populations. The center has had vast success in improving the teaching of science and math in secondary and elementary schools.

In conjunction with the ExxonMobil Foundation, The Harris Foundation sponsors 20 summer science camps across America. Yet the NJIT-hosted camp is the only one in the metro region. The goal of the camps is to cultivate a love of science in the students and to encourage them to study science and engineering in college.  

The camp is rigorous yet fun. Students attend daily classes in natural science, engineering, math and technology. But the emphasis is on experiential learning, with the students working in teams on hands-on projects. They also go on field trips and listen to invited guests, who talk to them about their careers in science and technology.

Repeated studies have shown that the United States faces a shortage of engineers and scientists in general; and the shortage is especially acute when it comes to women and minority engineers. The camp is intended to mitigate that shortage. 

“Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are critical elements to our nation’s economic and medical advancement in the 21st century,” said Harris. “Preserving our nation as the world leader in these fields requires an investment in our youth today. We were glad to extend this opportunity to NJIT and appreciate its eagerness to support our program’s efforts to encourage students to reach higher standards of achievement.”

By Robert Florida