June 26, 2008

Academy Science Camp Bolsters Students


Most of the students at a Naval Academy science camp this week are getting to do things they never would back at their schools.

That's not too surprising considering most high schools don't have a boat to conduct oceanographic experiments or fingerprinting and facial recognition technology straight out of CSI. Or a Mach 3 wind tunnel.

For the roughly 100 seventh to tenth graders from across the country attending the camp this week, it was a far cry from the beakers and Bunsen burners of chemistry class.

The camp, which is in its first year, aims to increase participation in science, technology, engineering, and math, (or STEM) fields by exposing students to more advanced experiments and projects than the ones they do in 5th period physics.

"It's really cool seeing all this stuff," said Carolyn, a student from Springfield, Va. who said she got to work with an electron microscope.

Naval Academy officials requested the last names of campers be withheld because they are under 18 and they did not receive clearance from the students' parents.

The campers hail from as close as Annapolis to as far away as Miami, Memphis, and Oklahoma. The camp runs through Friday and introduces campers to forensics, robotics, mechanics, biometrics and other fields.

David Smith, a professor who led one group of students, including a few from Annapolis High, on an oceanography tour of the Severn River early yesterday morning, said the program targeted high schools with underrepresented minority populations and strong science programs. He said it was important for students to be exposed to the sciences early.

"Studies have shown kids make their career decisions at the 7th, 8th grade level," he said.

"The goal is to reach kids before it becomes uncool," said Samara Firebaugh, an electrical engineering professor who was showing campers how to make a voice modifier by explaining the properties of sound and electricity. She said the camp will help increase participation in STEM fields because students will meet others interested in science and will see what they could do if they continue in the field.

The professors involved said they hoped the program would encourage attendees to continue work in scientific and technical fields throughout the rest of high school and into college.

"It has strong potential for attracting the type of students we need," Dr. Smith said. "This is the kind of investment we and other schools need to make."

The idea for the program came from the academy's admissions department about a year ago and grew out of the three-week summer seminars the academy holds for interested candidates and a program the academy established with a technical school in Brooklyn, said Davede Alexander, an admissions official.

The students were enthusiastic about the projects. In a biometrics lab, students had their fingerprints scanned. On a boat in the Severn, they used a high-tech instrument to examine the river's conductivity, depth, and temperature, and a low-tech secchi disk to measure its clarity.

And in Ms. Firebaugh's electrical engineering lab, they eagerly spoke into their hand-built voice modifiers to see what would come out.

Unlike their day-to-day high school science and math classes, the experiments and activities at the camp were generally hands-on and emphasized the practical uses of each field.

"You get to do a lot of hands-on things," said Kwamina, a 14- year-old from Fairfax, Va. "It's definitely furthering my interest."

"It answers a lot of the questions," said Ebony Pierre, a sophomore midshipman from Brooklyn, N.Y., who was working with campers and whose younger brother was attending the camp. "Why do we have to do this science? Why do we have to do this math?"

Lauren Kennell, Rob Ives, and Ryan Rakvic, all professors at the academy, said the students liked to test the limits of the gadgets they were given in a biometrics lab, seeing if they could try to fool them. One student successfully manipulated facial recognition technology that predicted a person's emotional state, making it believe he was sad, happy, and angry.

"It gets the brain pumping," Mr. Rakvic said.

Other campers said they enjoyed the taste of college life the camp gave them. The campers are living in Naval Academy dorms with roommates.

"It gives me a sense of independence and a sense of college life," said Philip, a rising high school sophomore. "It exposes you to a lot of other fields and it's really interesting."

But ultimately, the success of the camp will depend on whether or not the students here today develop into the next generation of American scientists and engineers.

"We need to wait five or six years and see what happens," Dr. Smith said.

(c) 2008 Capital (Annapolis). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.