They may have kept an astronaut alive in a makeshift spacecraft, but for four Rio Grande Valley middle school students, making new friends who share their love of math and science was the most rewarding part of participating in the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at The University of Texas-Pan American.
"It's a cool experience," said Marcela Benet, a rising seventh-grade student at B.L. Gray Junior High School in the Sharyland Independent School District. "You get to know other people that are around your age and have the same interests as you do."
Benet and her teammates Jasmine Regunan, Nallely Najera and Luis Rodolfo won the Mars Lander Challenge that took place at the camp's media day July 15 at the UTPA Student Union Theater.
This year, 43 middle school students from throughout the Rio Grande Valley attended the camp that ran July 6-19 and allows children to learn more about careers related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through hands-on activities.
For the Mars Lander Challenge, the students had to create a spacecraft using everyday items including paper, duct tape, bubble wrap and a plastic cup that would protect a ping pong ball "astronaut" descending on the red planet from two meters above ground.
Even though their astronaut survived, the winners said they were surprised they captured first place.
"To be honest ... we were expecting to get third (place)," Najera, a rising seventh-grade student at Central Middle School in Weslaco, said.
The students also heard from Samantha Silvas (BS '09), who works as a license and renewal supervisor for ExxonMobil, UTPA Associate Vice President for Student Support Services Cynthia Valdez and UTPA Vice President for University Advancement Veronica Gonzales.
Silvas, who is the first woman to graduate from UTPA with a degree in computer engineering, shared her story about how she has loved math and science since she was a child and pursued her interests to a rewarding career. She encouraged the campers to do the same.
"You are special and should feel special," Silvas said. "In fact, you should feel fantastic. You are very cool and I can't wait to see what you do in your lives."
Valdez told the students they were chosen out of hundreds of applicants and encouraged them to dream big when considering their futures.
"The real V.I.P.s are you because you were the ones who made the cut," Valdez.
UTPA has hosted the two-week-long camp since 2009, thanks to annual gifts of $80,000 from the ExxonMobil Foundation.
Learn more about the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp.
Anyone interested in contributing to UTPA's youth enrichment programs can contact Velinda Reyes, director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, at (956) 665-5301.
See more of the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp in this video: