Breanna Smith, 11, shows Aujanique Doss, 13, a butterfly that landed on her hand during the 24th Annual Ron McNair Camp in at the Pacific Science Center. Photo by Susan Fried
Andrew Cunningham and his friends are rolling balls down a pipe with different shapes cut out of the bottom; the object of the game is to make the ball drop out of the pipe as the child calls out the shape of the opening it fell through.
"I just made a parabola!" yells the 10-year-old.
That's what the Blacks in Science Ron McNair Camp-In at Pacific Science Center is all about, says vice president Ellen Letvin – to get young people excited about science. "The whole point is to give kids the chance to be inspired and learn by doing," Letvin said.
This year marks the 24th camp-in, which has been held every year since the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger when Dr. Ron McNair was killed, along with his fellow astronauts. McNair had flown one previous mission, and was the second African American astronaut in space.
After the tragedy, Millie Russell wanted to do something to honor McNair's legacy. Bruce Hilliard, one of the coordinators from Blacks in Science, credits Russell's leadership with making the event a success. "People know Millie all over the country," Hilliard said.
During the camp-in, kids have both structured activities, like building mashed-potato volcanoes to learn about the structure of the real deal, and free time to roam the exhibits. For America Dunlop, 9, this is the best part. "I saw the dinosaurs. It's my favorite exhibit," she said. This is her second time attending the camp, and she said this year she made her friends from school promise to come.
When it's time to get out the sleeping bags, campers get to bunk down among the exhibits, Hilliard said. "There's always a lot of whispers and giggles, and some of 'I want my mom,' but first thing in the morning they always ask, 'Can I come back next year?'"
Hilliard said that some campers might not otherwise go to the Science Center. "Some of these kids live 20 or 30 minutes away and have no idea what the Science Center is all about," he noted. While the event costs $60 for kids and $30 for parents to come with them, no child is turned away. Volunteers work hard all year finding sponsors in order to offer scholarships to kids who can't pay the fee, Hilliard said, adding, "This is our main event."
Any child age 8 to 12 is welcome to attend, and the age limit is flexible, especially if the child has never been to the camp-in before, he said.
In the end, Hilliard added, the work is always worth it. He has been involved with the camp-in since its first year. His nephew was a camper, and now helps out as a mentor; inspired by the experience, the youth is considering a career in architecture.
Javon Banks, 9, might exemplify the spirit of the camp-in best. "I like science and I like video games and I like Ron McNair," he said. "He went to space!"
Brionna Friedrich is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory