The space camp experience

So far this summer vacation, my son has made an astrolabe, a foam airplane, a telescope, a film canister rocket, a model rocket, recycled paper and a terrarium biosphere.

He has learned about rockets and space shuttles, written a science fiction story, created science art, visited the planetarium and been exposed to basic robotics. He has learned to use the North Star to find constellations and to navigate using stars.

He has successfully flown a foam airplane and a model rocket and unsuccessfully flown a film canister rocket. He was one of a team of architects of a space city. All this, and more, he learned this summer at Space Camp.

Space Camp is what we called his experience at home. Its official name is Galaxy Explorers Summer Camp, created by a new organization called the Federation of Galaxy Explorers.

To borrow directly from their Web site, the purpose of the Federation of Galaxy Explorers is to educate and inspire America’s youth in space related science and engineering. Their mission, which they have decided to accept, is to prepare the next generation to accept the challenge of expanding humankind’s presence in space. And what a great job they did.

Last year, getting my son to talk about his day in school was like pulling teeth. But every day on the way home from Space Camp, my son excitedly recounted his morning, tales of adventure that lasted the entire 20 minute ride. And in the morning on the way to camp, he fervently pressed me to pepper him with questions about space so he could explain to me what he’d learned. It was amazing to see him so animated about a learning experience.

We didn’t have to travel to a galaxy far, far away to get to Space Camp – we just had to drive to Marshall Elementary School. This is the second year the Prince William County Public Schools, with the support of Partnership Prince William, sponsored Space Camp.

Last year, the program was at Saunders Middle with all the other summer programs. It was watching the kids excitedly going to and from camp last year when my son decided he wanted to go this year.

This is a program that relies heavily on volunteers but has lots of community support. Even the founder, Nick Eftimiades, is a volunteer and was at camp almost every day. Volunteers and visitors to camp included people working for NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Department of Defense and the Northern Virginia Association of Model Rocketry.

Two wonderful Prince William teachers, Cami Craig, an eighth grade math teacher from Marstellar Middle School and Christine DeLello, a third grade teacher from Marshall Elementary provided their teaching expertise and enthusiasm throughout the entire program.

While the primary focus of the program is the hands on learning about space science, it’s the secondary focus of space citizenship that really impressed me. The necessity and importance of teamwork connected all the activities throughout the program. The kids were divided into Mission Teams, each responsible at the end for a portion of the space city they created.

The kids learned that building a city takes cooperation, not just within your team but with other teams working on other aspects of city life – the travel and tourism group needed to talk with the rocket group to make sure there were enough rockets to provide transportation from the city to attractions. They also needed to work with the hotel people to make sure there were places to stay. If all that stays with the children is that society doesn’t work in individualized vacuums but in teams and that we all need each other, the program was a success.

But teamwork isn’t all that stays with the kids. The beauty of the Galaxy Explorers program is that children learn without realizing they’re learning. They’re having fun.

They’re learning about space for the sheer wonder and joy of knowledge – not because it’s going to be on a test or because it will help them get into college. And because of the way the program is structured, they all come away with an interest in space and thinking that space science is fun, not boring.

They may not all become astronomers or NASA engineers or Men in Black, but they will all hopefully look up at the sky (through the fog of the light pollution) and be amazed by the beauty and the possibilities.

One of the greatest things about this summer enrichment program is that it doesn’t have to stop in the summer. There are Federation of Galaxy Explorer programs at many of our schools, including Marshall Elementary. Mr. Eftimiades makes it easy to start a program at your school – once a month meetings, support of the principal, a few volunteers and you’re good to go.

And no science background necessary – he’s got the curriculum ready to go and is willing to help get the program off the ground.

Galaxy explorers, to infinity and beyond.

Denise Oppenhagen lives in Lake Ridge.