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Photos by Jeff Woo

Brightening views

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By Matt Payne
UNT regents professor Gerald Knezek leads students in an exercise that simulates measuring the distance between the Earth, moon and sun on Saturday. The University of North Texas’ Discovery Park hosted 20 sixth-graders from Sanger ISD for its first NASA learning camp.Photos by Jeff Woo
UNT regents professor Gerald Knezek leads students in an exercise that simulates measuring the distance between the Earth, moon and sun on Saturday. The University of North Texas’ Discovery Park hosted 20 sixth-graders from Sanger ISD for its first NASA learning camp.
Photos by Jeff Woo
Sanger ISD student Wendy Rivas uses a virtual reality headset during a learning camp Saturday at UNT’s Discovery Park.Jeff Woo
Sanger ISD student Wendy Rivas uses a virtual reality headset during a learning camp Saturday at UNT’s Discovery Park.
Jeff Woo
Destiny Horne, left, Bethany Ramirez and Brooklyn Cosgrove test an augmented reality app during a half-day NASA learning camp on Saturday at UNT’s Discovery Park.Jeff Woo
Destiny Horne, left, Bethany Ramirez and Brooklyn Cosgrove test an augmented reality app during a half-day NASA learning camp on Saturday at UNT’s Discovery Park.
Jeff Woo

NASA-sponsored learning camp at UNT launches imaginations into orbit

On a bright, unseasonably warm February afternoon, 20 pairs of young, awestruck eyes gazed straight toward the sun.

That’s frowned upon by eye doctors, but these 20 youngsters equipped themselves with Eclipse Shades — glasses made with a black polymer filter that blocks all light except for that from the sun.

In practice for watching the solar eclipse that will occur on Aug. 21, the students stared into the sunlight. And, metaphorically speaking, into potential futures in science, technology, engineering and math.

“I learned so much I didn’t think was possible in science,” said Sanger ISD sixth-grader Ethan Godil. “Space is awesome.”

A five-year, $1.2 million grant from NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium made this science camp possible for 20 sixth-graders from Sanger ISD on Saturday at the University of North Texas’ Discovery Park. The half-day learning camp featured curriculum revolving around virtual and augmented reality technology, 2-D and 3-D printing, and the approaching solar eclipse this August in order to instill interest in STEM fields early on in kids.

NASA scientists and UNT professors collaborated to design a series of activities intended to introduce the fundamentals behind astronomy in a way that would be approachable and fun.

Gerald Knezek, UNT’s regents professor of learning technologies, had a chance encounter with the director of NASA’s STEM innovation lab, Troy Cline, seven years ago during a science conference in Brazil. That casual talk would plant the seed for this five-year program created with elementary students in mind.

The interactive activities at Discovery Park also served as a sort of trial for the yearly NASA camp that occurs each summer at the Dallas Arboretum. The Sanger ISD students had a say in what worked and what didn’t.

“There have been instances where these kids will go to the summer camp and likely didn’t learn as much as they could have,” Knezek said. “We’re trying to have something more meaningful.”

And the crew behind the day of learning did. When Knezek asked the sixth-graders whether they liked or disliked everything they did that day, he was met with a chorus of eager approval from the kids. During the sun-viewing with the Eclipse Shades, one student couldn’t help but concede, “OK, now you’ve succeeded in amazing me.”

Knezek was joined by UNT research scientist Rhonda Christensen, Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science faculty, research assistants and more to organize the camp. Samson Lepcha was one of the research assistants who pitched in to teach the students on Saturday.

“This is the grass-roots level effort to help these students see what’s possible,” Lepcha said. “And hopefully they’re inspired to implement what they’ve learned in the future.”

MATT PAYNE can be reached at 940-566-6845 and via Twitter at @MattePaper.