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With science and spacesuits, campers shoot for stars

An astronaut’s spacesuit must fulfill many functions, most of which were easily rattled off by more than two dozen middle school students on campus for an intensive summer science camp.

Provide air to a space traveler? Certainly. Shield him or her from the sun’s powerful rays? Check. Be durable and strong yet still give the astronaut enough freedom to conduct a complicated spacewalk? For sure. Protect against aliens? Maybe.

“You certainly don’t just put on a bunch of layers of clothes and go outside,” said Daniel Sullivan, E’11, a camp staff member.

Students collaborate on the design of a spacesuit capable of withstanding powerful debris. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

[media-credit id=19 align=”alignleft” width=”350″][/media-credit]Designing a material to make up a multilayered spacesuit was just one of many tasks completed by students who are participating in the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. The free, two-week program — run by Northeastern’s Center for STEM Education and named after the first African-American to conduct a spacewalk — gives students the chance to work alongside Northeastern faculty, staff and students on projects aimed at increasing their knowledge and experience in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

On Wednesday morning, students designed materials that could protect an astronaut from space junk, and in the afternoon, they built their own minirockets and launched them into the sky.

The scientists-in-training said they are having a blast.

Bishop Edwards, an 11-year-old rising sixth-grader from Dorchester, received an application for the science camp from his church and could not be happier with the experience. “It’s actually a lot of fun,” he said. “We’re always building things and doing experiments.”

Edwards noted that his egg was the sole survivor in an egg-dropping competition, explaining that a contraption fashioned out of straws and cotton balls protected his egg from the impact of a 20-foot fall.

Jennifer Kim, a 13-year-old rising seventh-grader from Winchester, Mass., agreed with Edwards’ assessment of the camp. “I feel like we’re practicing to go to college,” she said. “You may miss your family, but there is so much fun stuff going on here, and you’re learning so much that you’re happy to be here.”

Bob Gittens, Northeastern’s vice president for public affairs, noted that a main goal of the program is to expose students to the benefits higher education.

“Some of you may be thinking ‘No one in my family has gone to college’ or ‘We don’t have the money to go to college,’” Gittens told the students on Wednesday morning. “That’s what I thought, too.”

Gittens, a Dorchester native, said that he realized that dedicating time to his schoolwork and constructing a strong network of advocates would help him find his way to college. It wasn’t unreasonable for any student in the camp, he said, to follow a similar path with enough hard work.

“One of Dr. Harris’ statements that he likes to share with students,” added STEM’s director of programs and operations, Claire Duggan, “is ‘I am an infinite being with infinite possibilities.’ I want you to believe that. I want you to remember that.”