Youngsters explore their love of math, science at ExxonMobil camp at UTPA
Posted: 07/26/2013
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With a few supplies and much ingenuity, middle school students Mateo Vallejo, Giovanna Sagastegui, Joe Fortuna and Alejandro Banda created a "space suit" that could withstand the impact of a micrometeorite.

Samantha Silvas (BS '09), team lead for software services for ExxonMobil's Houston License Management (pictured center left), and UTPA Vice President for University Advancement Veronica Gonzales (pictured center right), pose with students and educators during the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp's Media Day July 24.

The four students won the Space Suit Challenge during the fifth annual ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp held at The University of Texas-Pan American. With having a center punch pierce through just three of 14 layers of its prototype, the group bested 11 other teams during the competition.

Vallejo, who will enter the sixth grade at Mary Hoge Middle School in Weslaco this fall, and his teammates said the trick was to put thicker materials on top to ease the impact of the center punch.

This year, 48 middle school students from throughout the Rio Grande Valley attended the camp that ran July 14-26 and allows children to learn more about careers related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through hands-on activities.

Students said they have enjoyed working on projects, including creating rockets out of soda bottles and developing a robot that can be controlled underwater.

"It's been very fun," Vallejo, age 11, said. "I like how friendly the camp counselors are and how we have opportunity to experience the college life and meet new friends."

On July 24, the students heard from the camp's creator, Dr. Bernard Harris, a former NASA astronaut and the first African American to walk in space, as well as from UTPA Vice President for University Advancement Veronica Gonzales and Samantha Lozano Silvas (BS '09), a team lead for software services for ExxonMobil's Houston License Management.

In a Skype interview, Harris shared his stories about being an astronaut and answered questions from the children. He also encouraged the students to follow their dreams and consider careers in the STEM fields.

"There are three things I believe about you," Harris said. "Each and every one of you has multiple potential ... Everyone is multi-talented ... Each and every one of you is born for a reason."

Pictured left to right are middle school students Giovanna Sagastegui, Mateo Vallejo, Alejandro Banda and Joe Fortuna, winners of the Space Suit Challenge at UTPA's fifth-annual ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. They were among 48 Rio Grande Valley students who attended the two-week long camp dedicated to fostering an interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Silvas, who was the first woman to earn a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from UTPA, told students to not let anyone discourage them from pursuing their interests in math and science, even if it's not the popular thing to do. She added that in the future, eight out of every 10 new jobs that will be created will require strong math and science skills.

"You are special and you should feel good about yourselves," she said. "I cannot wait to see what you do with your lives."

Mignon Smith, national director for the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp Program at The Harris Foundation, said having such partnerships between industries, communities and educational institutions is important because the country is at a crisis point now in having enough people trained to work in STEM fields. As Baby Boomers begin to retire and as more STEM related jobs are being created, there will be a greater need for more people to be prepared well enough to do these jobs, she and other representatives said.

Smith said she and other program officials have been pleased with how UT Pan American has conducted the camps over the years and she has enjoyed seeing the children take such a strong interest in math and science.

"It definitely gives you hope," Smith said.

Representatives of ExxonMobil said they enjoy forming partnerships with higher education institutions and their communities to encourage children to excel in school and consider careers in the STEM fields.

"Over the past five years, UTPA's partnership with ExxonMobil has touched the lives of more than 250 local, underserved middle-school students by providing opportunities to enhance science, technology, engineering and math skills through the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp program," said Beth Snyder, program manager of education with ExxonMobil. "UTPA is one of 20 universities hosting this unique, residential learning experience for exceptional students nationwide."

Such collaborations with universities like UTPA are important, Snyder said, as ExxonMobil's strategic focus in education is on math and science, since they are now - and will increasingly be - the universal languages of the global workplace and are critical tools for success in today's high-tech world.

Learn more about the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp.

See more of the camp in this photo gallery.

Anyone interested in contributing to UTPA's youth enrichment programs can contact Velinda Reyes, director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, at (956) 665-5301.