Several teams of area middle school students huddled around tables last week at the Virginia Museum of Natural History as each worked to build a model lunar rover powered by solar power.
The teams had two hours to build, test, rebuild, test, rebuild, test, etc. until they developed rovers - think of the vehicles used by astronauts to explore the surface of the moon - that worked.
Trials were held later to determine the rovers that traveled the farthest, fastest and straightest.
The activity was one of the hands-on exercises at the four-day "Rock-It-Science Camp" last week. The camp was held in celebration of the International Year of Astronomy and the 40th anniversary of the Apollo mission, which marked mankind's first step on the moon.
More than 30 students from Fieldale-Collinsville, Laurel Park and Martinsville middle schools signed up to take part in the first two days of the camp, which took place at VMNH on Wednesday and Thursday. About 45 students signed up for the last two days of the camp, during which they went to the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton and visited the NASA Langley Research Center, the birthplace of America's space program.
On Wednesday at VMNH, Amy Sabarre, director of the NASA SEMAA (Science, Engineering, Science and Aerospace Academy) lab at Martinsville Middle School, divided the students into teams with instructions to each build a lunar rover using construction toys - such as motors, tires, gears, axles and brightly colored interlocking building blocks - plus a solar panel.
After explaining the general options for building a rover and the essential materials needed, Sabarre put the students to work and told them to ask a teacher for help only after a team's members had discussed the problem thoroughly and still were stumped.
Jonathan Jamison, a rising seventh-grader at Fieldale-Collinsville Middle School, said he was learning "how to use solar power and transfer it to kinetic energy" (energy of motion). Jonathan is the son of Rhonda and Mark Jamison of Fieldale.
Several other students said they were learning about such things as solar energy, robotics, technology, rocketry and how to study moons or planets.
Earlier in the day, students explored space in a hunt, using GPS equipment, binoculars and telescopes.
During a snack, students in teams simulated creating a sandwich in zero gravity. If they dropped any of the ingredients of the sandwich, someone would take it away, because it would float off in zero gravity.
Students also crawled into an indoor star lab (an inflatable dome) and heard a presentation by Sabarre on the Greek mythology behind constellations, saw diagrams outlining the various constellations and finally, looking at a picture of only the stars but no diagrams, were asked to find several of the major constellations and other heavenly bodies on their own.
Colin Penn, 11, a rising sixth-grader at Martinsville Middle School and the son of Stephanie Hedrick of Collinsville, and several other students said they enjoyed learning the mythology behind the constellations. Colin said he learned that the North Star appears not to move, and that could be helpful if he got lost.
"I'll be able to find my way out of the woods or something," he said.
Several other students said seeing the diagrams of the constellations might help them locate some of them in the night sky.
Activities on the agenda for Thursday included a simulation of how the Martian rover got to the surface of Mars. Students dropped an egg from two locations at the museum. Each egg was packaged in a triangle cube, with balloons on the outside and a parachute made of such materials as a trash bag, foil, parchment paper or tissue paper.
At the Virginia Air & Space Center, staff were to provide a variety of activities for the students, including a sleepover inside the center during which campers could stargaze on the center's observation deck.
The camp was provided by VMNH and the Virginia Air and Space Center in partnership with the Hampton Roads Convention & Visitors Bureau.