Innovative Summer Camp Gives Kids First Taste of Space
A group of students watch as two students climb on a ladder-like structure

NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida hosted more than 1,800 students for Camp KSC. As part of the camp, students simulated a spacewalk on the Micro-G wall. Image Credit: NASA

Summertime for middle school students is defined by warm weather, time off from school and swimming pools. This year, NASA created a new program to give another meaning to summer: extending students' education in a fun and creative way.

Summer of Innovation is NASA's answer to President Obama's Educate to Innovate national campaign. SOI targets middle school children, especially those who are underprivileged, underrepresented and underserved. The program's goal is to counter the so-called "summer slide," or the time when students lose some skills acquired during the previous school year. SOI uses the excitement of NASA's missions and programs to engage students in hands-on activities. By identifying challenges and proposing solutions to actual space-related situations, the students gain experience in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. They also learn how using those skills can be rewarding and fun.

Currently, the Summer of Innovation project has awarded grants to four states to pursue STEM projects. Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho and Massachusetts have camps statewide that reach approximately 6,095 students. All NASA centers are reaching out to students through summer programs within their local communities.

SOI is leveraging educational opportunities by partnering with other organizations. As the partnership development manager, astronaut Leland Melvin is constantly looking for new and nontraditional ways to get kids to think about STEM.

Astronaut Winston Scott and Neil Hawkins look at a model of the space shuttle

Neil Hawkins met astronaut Winston Scott during a Camp KSC session. Image Credit: NASA

"We need to be creative in looking for ways to reach out to kids who normally wouldn't have access to space-inspired STEM activities," Melvin said. "Many kids in these communities just need to be exposed to this type of opportunity and then their interests in these subjects will grow."

Before joining NASA and becoming an astronaut, Melvin played professional football for the Detroit Lions. He used his connections to initiate a Summer of Innovation partnership with the National Football League. An engineer from NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland recently spoke at NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb's football camp in New Jersey. The engineer spoke to the youth about the physics of football, tying the activity of football to STEM.

SOI also is partnering with recording artist Mary J. Blige's organization Foundation For Advancing Women Now. High school girls in the group are using SOI material to teach middle school children in New York City's Housing Authority and the Harlem Children's Zone.

In the next several months, SOI will evaluate the improvements in teaching, student attitudes towards STEM, and student academic performance following this first installment of the three-year program. By identifying best practices and lessons learned, NASA can make adjustments and improvements to future SOI efforts.

Neil Hawkins sits in Mission Control at Camp KSC

Mission simulations were one of the activities that students participated in during Camp KSC. Image Credit: NASA

This summer, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida hosted more than 1,800 students for "Camp KSC." Of those students, 800 were given scholarships to this SOI opportunity. During a nine-week period, the students focused on engineering and science through NASA's BEST (Beginning Engineering Science Technology) curriculum. Campers worked in teams to investigate space travel and design space exploration vehicles.

A major component of the camp was letting kids use simulators to further understand space travel. One simulation allowed campers to perform duties as members of launch and mission control, while another simulator allowed them to pretend they were participating in a spacewalk using a Micro-G wall. For the Micro-G simulator, campers slip into a harness system that counterbalances their own body weight and allows them to effortlessly move up and down the wall (simulating the freedom of movement experienced during a spacewalk). Another simulator enabled them to experience what it feels like to launch aboard the space shuttle.

To add to their knowledge of spaceflight, the students learned about astronauts and space missions. They met with astronaut Winston Scott and visited the KSC Visitor Complex, as well as the Saturn V Complex.

Neil Hawkins sits strapped into the Multi-Axis Trainer

Neil Hawkins' favorite activity at Camp KSC was riding the Multi-Axis Trainer, which simulates being in a tumbling space capsule. Image Credit: NASA

An 11-year old student, Neil Hawkins, spent five days at the Kennedy camps in mid-July. Hawkins is going into the sixth grade, and his favorite subject is science. Hawkins knew about NASA before the camp because his father taught him about space. However, Hawkins was not aware of what it takes to be an astronaut. At camp, he learned that being an astronaut requires, "endurance and lots of training." Learning about being an astronaut increased his interest in NASA.

"I have thought about becoming an astronaut," Hawkins said, with a huge smile across his face. Hawkins' favorite part about camp was getting to ride on the multi-axis trainer, MAT, which allowed him to experience the feeling of a tumbling space capsule.

Last summer, Hawkins had a limited knowledge of astronauts and space missions. Going to camp this summer helped him learn more about both, specifically the Apollo missions.

Hawkins definitely would recommend this camp to friends and schoolmates because it prepared him for the upcoming school year.

"My learning will be better and I'll learn more!" he said.

Related Resources:
> Summer of Innovation
> NASA Education

Mary C. Hawes/NASA Headquarters Public Affairs Office