From makeshift shuttles to homemade cheese: Summer camp at W&J

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When Kipano Washington, 11, was challenged to craft a model space shuttle, he puzzled over his supply of household odds and ends.


“I didn’t know how the bubble wrap would work,” Washington said, expressing his initial thought upon hearing the mission was to assemble a homemade rocket. “(My group) really helped me understand what it could be used for.”


Washington joined his team in front of 48 other campers Thursday to launch their bubble wrap-parachuted shuttle from a stepladder at Washington & Jefferson College. The goal for the sixth- to eighth-grade students at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp was to create a spacecraft that would drop directly onto the six-inch landing pad below.


The Harris Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at empowering minorities, collaborated with the ExxonMobil foundation, a philanthropic arm of ExxonMobil Corp., for their ninth year running a camp focused on science and technology-based learning. W&J hosted one of 20 camps nationwide.


Dr. Anu Shanmuganathan, W&J assistant professor of biology and camp program director, said campers came from 24 different school districts in Washington and Allegheny counties.


“The camp is also meant to serve underrepresented populations,” Shanmuganathan said, explaining that half the campers came from low-income families or those underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.


Dr. Bernard Harris, the camp’s creator and first African-American to walk in space, spoke briefly about the importance diligence played in his 7.2 million miles of space travel. He then led a countdown and proceeded to launch the pipe cleaner-clad shuttles assembled by the teams of campers.


“(Campers) learn about math and science education and really interact,” Harris said, “allowing them to connect the dots to what they learn in their respective schools.”


According to a survey completed by former campers, all but 5 percent are attending college and 75 percent attribute their future math and science pursuits to Harris’ camp.


“It’s about economic development,” Harris said. “Because we are now not just competing within the United States, we are competing globally, and we need to make sure we have knowledgeable citizens.”


Dr. Anne McGrain, W&J’s biology program coordinator and executive director of the camp, explained students had to complete an application and obtain a letter of recommendation from a math or science teacher to participate in the program, which was hosted for the first time on the W&J campus.


“Many of (the kids) have not been on a college campus before,” McGrain said. “And already some of them are talking about going to college here.”


Camp activities also explored the science behind food. During the 10-day camp, students examined everything from the dyes in different flavors of Kool-Aid to bacteria on their teeth.


Lindsey Dove, camp counselor and W&J junior, particularly enjoyed watching the viscosity activity, in which campers squirted syringes of ketchup and chocolate syrup on paper to measure the splatter patterns.


“They had a lot of fun with that (activity),” Dove said. “They got a little messy.”


Campers also formulated their own batch of cheese.


Lauren Baker, a sixth-grade camper, said she plans to bring the recipe back home.


“I thought it would be a lot more complicated to make the cheese. I didn’t know there was just milk and lemon,” Baker said. “It was awesome. My parents and I are going to make it tomorrow.”


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