ARLINGTON -- Build a better mousetrap? Not exactly, but the 50 or so junior high campers at the University of Texas at Arlington took a shot at designing the best spacesuit Tuesday.
In teams of four, the participants in the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp were charged with "buying" materials and designing a 6-inch-square sample of a suit that would hold up in the harsh environment of space, where temperatures range from 200 degrees Fahrenheit to well below zero and there is a vacuum that causes molecules to expand.
The students' choice of materials included aluminum foil, tape, paper plates, file folder and foam board.
"Is everybody ready?" program director Lia Turk called out. "OK, no biting; no punching below the belt. One, two, three, go!"
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The students went to work, helped by teachers and a visiting ExxonMobil engineer.
The out-of-this-world activity was part of a lesson from former astronaut Bernard Harris, who started his camp in 1994 to encourage low-income and minority students to make math and science a focus of their education.
Before the contest Tuesday, Harris talked with the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders by video over the Internet, discussing his adventures and emphasizing the importance of staying in school. He was the first African-American to walk in space.
"One hundred percent of the jobs you might be thinking about doing will require math and science," said Harris, a medical doctor, making his point by illustrating how even artists use those skills.
UT Arlington is in its fourth year of hosting the camp. Twenty-four other sites in the U.S., five of them in Texas, are also doing so.
The two-week camp, during which the students stay in dorms, go on field trips and hear a variety of speakers, is aimed at socioeconomic groups traditionally underrepresented in math and science fields, said Greg Hale, executive director of the camp and assistant dean of the UT Arlington College of Science. The camp gives these students an experience they might not otherwise have.
"We're leaving a lot of talent on the table," he said. "What we're trying to do is give them a push all the way to college."
Part of that involves changing students' perception of math and science.
Lori Norris, special programs coordinator for the College of Science, recalled a mother describing her daughter's dream of becoming an engineer.
"She's afraid of telling anyone that she wants to be an engineer because she's afraid that people will fall over laughing," Norris said. "Well, this camp is a safe place to say, 'I want to be an engineer,' or 'I want to be a scientist,' or 'I want to be a math nerd.'"
Another part involves making the subjects fun. Teachers like Turk, who bounces around the room giving off positive energy, keep the children interested and are sure to make a lasting impression.
For the youths, the camp, in its second week, has already been memorable. Ky Perkins, 13, a student at Carter Junior High in Arlington who aspires to be a pilot or an environmental engineer, said he liked the group's visit to the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center in Seagoville.
"We got to see a natural way to clean the water," he said. "We observed microorganisms under a microscope."
For Cade Contreras, 11, who attends St. Peter the Apostle Catholic School in Fort Worth, the answer was simpler but one other campers shared.
"I like staying in a dorm," he said. "You get to experience the college life."
Patrick M. Walker,