Kids explore space through Challenger camp

Posted: Friday, July 02, 2004

There was no countdown or rocket launch, but 11 youngsters still jettisoned into an alien world Wednesday.

Donning special suits complete with air tanks and respirators, the youths participants in the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska's first Space Odyssey Camp set out to explore the zero-gravity atmosphere of space, much as a real astronaut in training might do in Houston.

Tamra Wear, lead flight director for the center, ex-plained that astronauts prepare for space missions in a neutral buoyance lab in Houston, essentially a large swimming pool filled with water and shuttle mockups.

"This is as close as we get in Kenai," Wear said, sitting beside the Kenai Central High School swimming pool.

In the water, a group of students in scuba gear worked under water to assemble a PVC pipe structure.

The exercise not only lets the teens explore the sensation of weightlessness, but also challenges their teamwork.

"They practiced (putting the structure together on land)," Wear explained. "Each of the groups spent about 45 minutes assembling it while talking and figuring it out. Then they assembled it without talking, because they'll be underwater and can't talk. Some came up with signals, jobs they preplanned how it would happen."

Preparation aside, the kids said the exercise still was a bit different than they expected.


Tamra Wear helps Zach Hibberd construct a model airplane during a camp session where students learned about flight.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"We we're, like, on the bottom; I thought we'd be floating (on top of the water)," said Nathan Larson, a 12-year-old who attends Cook Inlet Academy during the school year.

"We were weightless, like in space," said 13-year-old Cody Charnell of Los Angeles.

The zero-gravity simulation was just a small part of the weeklong Space Odyssey Camp, which explored all manners of practical science activities.

Wear explained that this week's camp is the first full overnight program offered by the center since the construction of dorms on-site. As such, organizers still are working to figure out what activities to offer students.

This week, the 11 campers, nine of whom stayed overnight at the center throughout the week, studied flight with a visit to the FAA tower in Kenai and an afternoon of model airplane construction and flight. They also spent a day working with robotics and another practicing rocketry. In between lessons, Wear said students also participated in team-building exercises in preparation for today's culminating space mission at the center.

"Right now it's a mix of things, sort of a potpourri of subjects," she said. However, she said, in the future, the center would like to offer weeklong camps on specific topics, such as robotics, rocketry or astronaut training, with the range of human and facility resources available.

"We have (Alaska-raised astronaut) Bill Oefelein; he's always in contact with us at the center," she said. "We have (Sterling Elementary School teacher and educator-astronaut candidate) Allan Miller as a resource. We're really lucky to have these people bring these NASA-specific activities to kids."

The kids, too, were pretty excited about the opportunities though several said they didn't know what they were getting into when their parents signed them up for the camp. Some thought the week would be spent in science lectures, rather than hands-on activities. Meanwhile, others said they were enthused at the idea of learning about space for the week.

"We saw the ad and I was really psyched," said Myrlin Barber, a 12-year-old who plans to attend middle school in Anchorage next fall. "It's even more than I expected."

More students will have the opportunity to participate in space camps at the center throughout the summer, and Wear said registration still is being accepted for later sessions. The Space Odyssey Week Camp, for students ages 12 to 14, will be repeated July 26 to 30. Space Science Camp, a similar but slightly modified program for those ages 10 to 12, will be July 12 to 16 and Aug. 9 to 13. Both camps cost $300 for the weeklong overnight program or $60 per day for students who don't stay overnight.

Flight Overnight, for students 10 to 13, will be July 9-10 and 23-24, as well as Aug. 6-7. The program starts at 5 p.m. Fridays and ends at 4 p.m. Saturdays. This shorter program costs $125.

Day programs also are being offered at the center for younger students. One-day robotics classes for students ages 7 to 9 will be held Tuesday, July 20 and Aug. 3, while rocketry classes will be Thursday, July 22 and Aug. 5.

For more information or to register, call Tamra Wear or Charlotte Harvey at 283-2000 or e-mail tamra.wear@akchal or charlotte.har

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