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Released July 9, 2004

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG -- When Frederick Oglesby crawled out of the makeshift planetarium set up last week at The University of Southern Mississippi for the GEAR UP Mississippi space camp, his eyes sparkled as brightly as the constellations he'd just seen inside.

"That was cool," a star-struck Oglesby said, emphasizing each word.

Oglesby, a rising freshman at Hattiesburg High, was one of 36 eighth-graders selected from Burger Middle School to attend the weeklong program. Split into two camps, from July 5-9 and from July 19-23, the summer program encourages students to use math, science, reading, writing and computers to simulate a Mars landing. On July 24, both camps will travel to Stennis Space Center together for a daylong field trip.

Designed to excite students about science courses, the program did just that for Jamie Nelson, 14. "I've never really been a science person before, but this program has opened my eyes to a lot of things," she said. Nelson said her favorite part of the camp was when they used bottle rockets to learn the concepts of rocket flight. "I also liked learning how to find the Big Dipper. I'd never seen it before," Nelson said, holding a star chart she'd just learned how to use about a half hour before going inside the portable planetarium, which was assembled in Harkins Hall, home of the space camp.

Using current Mars discovery data, the students design and conduct a simulated manned expedition to the Red Planet, which they achieve using computer and video technology. Video and graphic manipulations place the designers in photographs to illustrate the models in realistic scale.

While the students do most of the work themselves, along the way they have professional help. On Wednesday, campers held a video conference with an actual jet propulsion laboratory in California.

Educator Lee Walker, one of the camp's teachers, said the exchange between the students and the scientists at the jet propulsion lab went "beautifully." "It was a real thrill for the students to talk to people who do this kind of stuff for a living," said Walker, whose brother David is also a camp instructor.

Walker said that some of the faces in the camp might be among the first we see on Mars one day.

"We've already been there with rovers. Now we have to find a way to get people there," he said. Walker believes that the students in the GEAR UP camp have every opportunity to be among the first Mars pioneers, as long as they have the desire to do it.

"I'm confident that if you have passion for something, even something like space flight, it's within your ability to do it," Walker said.

Project GEAR UP, a federally funded grant, was designed to identify which types of programs will impact students finishing high school and entering college, said Kim Walker, co-director of GEAR UP Mississippi. The summer camp, which runs from 8:30 a.m. into the early evening, also exposes attendees to some extracurricular activities, giving them "a taste of real college life," Walker said.

"We've taken them to eat at Seymour's, and to the game room and the Payne Center," she said, "just things actual college students do."

Institute of Higher Learning representative Liz Smitherman, who handles recruiting and public relations for GEAR UP Mississippi, attended Thursday's session. She was impressed with the enthusiasm and eagerness with which the students approached their learning activities.

"It's been amazing to see how excited they are about learning new things," Smitherman said. "This camp allows you to put to use so many of the things you learn in the classroom but never get to actually apply."


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July 20, 2004 4:47 PM