Jackie Vasquez and her fellow teammates escaped Harris Island, thanks to the raft they made using straws and aluminum foil.
The rising eighth-grade student at Valley View Junior High School in Pharr is one of about 50 students from all over the Rio Grande Valley who is attending the Bernard Harris ExxonMobil Summer Science Camp, which runs from July 11-23 at The University of Texas-Pan American. This is the second year the University is hosting the two-week-long camp that allows children to learn more about careers related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through hands-on activities. The camp is part of the University's Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) program, which culminates with a weeklong celebration in the fall each year.
Vasquez and the other students were asked to create a raft that can carry as many people off the fictitious "Harris Island." The rafts had to hold as many pennies - representing people - as possible while floating in a tub of water. Jackie's team, which included eighth-grade students Kira Randolph, Daniel Solis and David Flores, managed to place 392 pennies on the raft before it started to sink.
"As soon as we got to 100 I was, like, 'That's how long I'm going to live,' and when we got to 300 I'm like, 'I'm going to live a long time,'" said Vasquez, 13.
Jackie and her fellow teammates said they've enjoyed the camp activities so far and are considering entering science-related fields.
There are 30 universities hosting camps across the nation this summer, including UTPA, with about 1,500 middle school students participating. ExxonMobil contributed $80,000 to UTPA for this camp.
On Friday, July 16, leaders from ExxonMobil Corp., the University and the Bernard Harris Foundation and U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, TX-15, addressed students and their parents about the importance of continuing their education and urged students to dream big in setting their goals for the future.
Hinojosa, who was instrumental in starting HESTEC, urged parents who attended the press conference to stay involved in their children's education and encouraged students to continue their studies beyond high school. He also told them about legislation he helped push through that expanded the Pell Grant and other financial aid to students and allowed Hispanic-Serving Institutions to recruit students for master's and doctoral programs.
"Today, right here, right now, is only the beginning of your education," Hinojosa said. "A college education is possible for you. There is no excuse why any individual in this room cannot go to college."
Rosendo Cruz, program officer for ExxonMobil and a McAllen native, told students about how he always wanted to be an engineer, so he worked hard and went to college to achieve his goal. Outside the press conference, Cruz said he shares his story in hopes that other students like him will follow suit.
Many of the jobs to be created in the future will be STEM-related, and companies need to find talented people to fill those positions, Cruz said.
"For us it is such an important endeavor. We want to get kids excited about math and science careers," Cruz said. "They are the talent base for the future."
Having such camps available to students allows the University to help foster a love of science and math in youth and build relationships with future employers of graduates, said Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, UTPA president.
"We need to reach out to kids and we know if we can get them involved in science and math when they're in middle school they'll succeed. High school is too late. Getting them started now is the most important time," he said.
Nelsen said partnerships with corporations including ExxonMobil make it possible for the University to reach out to students through camps.
"The camps are expensive. We wouldn't be able to put on camps like this without partners like ExxonMobil. But I think more importantly is we establish relationship with them so that we have places for our students to be able to work. The University is about education but it's also about getting a job," he said.
During the first week, students tested launching rockets made out of 2-liter soda bottles, cardboard, clay and tape; designed energy efficient houses and determined what the best method was to clean oil spilled onto feathers, rocks and wooden strips.
"Oil spreads fast," said Starr Olivarez, an 11-year-old rising seventh-grade student at Barrientes Middle School in Edinburg as she and fellow student, Vivian Torres, an 11-year-old and a rising sixth-grade student at IDEA Academy in Mission, tried to clean oil off of feathers.
Starr and the other students said they've enjoyed the camp so far; the favorite activity for many was designing an energy-efficient home using computer-aided design programs.
"This really makes you think," Starr said.
During one class earlier this week, students were tasked with "mining" as many chocolate chips from their cookies using only a bamboo skewer within five minutes as part of a lesson on coal mining and fossil fuels. They also had to cause the least amount of damage to the treat as possible.
Abel Gonzalez, a 12-year-old rising seventh-grade student at Mission Junior High School, said he enjoys the classes the camp offers.
"I like all the experiments, I like the one with the cookies," said Abel, who successfully mined 21 chips from his cookie.
Diana Garza, an eighth-grade science teacher at Fossum Middle School in McAllen and one of the instructors at the camp, said the camp allows students to learn more about science without the pressure of state standardized tests or other assessments.
"It's learning for fun and they don't realize how much they're learning or the knowledge they're gaining," Garza said. "You get to do the core of the lesson without any of the things that bog you down in the classroom."