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To Infinity And Beyond

By EMILY SHARRER
Daily News-Record

July 19, 2013
(Posted with permission of the Daily News-Record)

HARRISONBURG - Shanil Virani knows the unflattering words children have used to describe his favorite field. "Sometimes kids think science is stagnant and boring," said Virani, director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University.

But if you're paying attention, "it's neither," Virani says.

"This is the generation of kids that will make the announcement that life exists on another planet," he said, giving an example. "It's the most exciting discovery waiting to happen."

Virani's mission this week was to spread his love of science during JMU's inaugural Space Camp, where 100 middle-schoolers from around the Shenandoah Valley got a chance to learn about astronomy.

While on campus, students visited the planetarium and JMU's Science on a Sphere, a visualization tool that allows people to see Earth the way astronauts do from outer space.

Virani hopes that the activities will get young students - particularly a diverse population of kids - seriously thinking about science careers.

"We just don't get the number of science and engineering students we need," he said. "Our pipeline is nearly empty."

The program, hosted by the JMU Department of Physics and Office of Outreach and Engagement, was funded in part by an $8,000 grant from the NASA Langley Research Center. The money provided scholarships for some students.

The center is sponsoring similar programs for other schools and organizations.

"It's a way to get NASA out to more people and inspire and engage kids so they want to study [science, technology, engineering and math]," said Becky Jaramillo, a senior educator with the National Institute of Aerospace, a nonprofit research and education institute that partners with NASA.

The NASA Langley Research Center also provided curriculum for the week, trained camp counselors and hooked the camp up with sources in the field.

A NASA astronaut and a member of the team that landed a rover on Mars spoke with students via teleconference.

Building their own rovers and landers was a favorite activity of Rachel Cubbage, 12, and Aaron Painter, 14, on Wednesday.

"I just love science [and] I like building things," said Aaron, son of Ronnie Painter of Stanley.

Added Rachel: "Building the lander I learned the more surface area you have, the more drag you have."

Jack Bookhultz, 73, who lives in Augusta County, found the curriculum so scintillating he stuck around to observe each day after dropping his grandson at the camp.

"I don't go home; I might miss something," Bookhultz said as he watched students craft their own landers. "It's really thought provoking, educational and motivational for [students]."

Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or esharrer@dnronline.com