“Planetary landings” were the activity of the day July 13 in NJIT’s Campus Center Atrium. There, a sea of yellow-shirted tweens assembled in small teams to design, construct and test model spacecrafts capable of “protecting an astronaut during a planetary landing.” Their building materials were household items ranging from pipe cleaners to duct tape, and their time to perfect their spacecrafts before presenting them to a judging panel was just 35 minutes.

The competition, called the Mars Lander Challenge, marked the midpoint of the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, funded by ExxonMobil and The Harris Foundation, and coordinated by NJIT’s Center for Pre-College Programs (CPCP) since 2007. The two-week residential camp provides underrepresented and underserved middle school students with STEM projects, experiments and field experiences. It also introduces them to college and campus life, and helps them develop problem-solving, critical-thinking, communication and research skills.

The campers weren’t the only day’s participants engaged with space travel, however. Guest of honor Bernard Harris, a physician and president of the foundation that bears his name, is the first African-American astronaut to walk in space. Each year, Dr. Harris visits NJIT and the other academic institutions across the country that host the free camp to assist and speak with the competitors.

He remarked that over the years “the kids have been coming in here very knowledgeable in math and science, which makes me feel we’re making some headway as a country” in STEM education. “The other thing is [this program] is very competitive, so these are the top kids from this area. Here, guess what? It’s cool to be smart,” he added.

Bernard Harris addresses the campers before the competition begins.

Indeed, the campers, who come from Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Passaic and Union counties, must complete a comprehensive application that requires school transcripts, letters of recommendation from teachers and an essay about why they want to attend the camp. Additionally, they must interview with an official from CPCP.

For this year’s winning team The Landers —seventh-graders Emmanuel and Nashali, sixth-grader Kayla and eighth-grader Joseph — the competition was equally rigorous. “We all had many different thoughts and to fuse them together was kind of challenging,” said Joseph. But they all agreed the camp was fun, interesting and inspiring and that meeting Dr. Harris “was cool!”

Richard Serra, a math teacher at Millburn Middle School, returned to instruct at the camp for a second year, along with Karen Lee, a biology teacher at West Orange High School. “Seeing kids loving learning just make me happy, so that’s why I come back here,” noted Serra, who served as the camp’s lead teacher. “In 35 minutes of building, what these children were able to create…it always surprises me and makes me so proud.”

(Top) The Landers team members work on their spacecraft before presenting it to the judges. (Bottom, from left) Emmanuel, Nashali, Joseph and Kayla later nabbed first place in the competition.