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How to Fix L.A. Traffic? Ask a 10-Year-Old.

2014 ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp: USC Viterbi hosts two-week summer science camp for middle school students.
By: Vanessa Wilkins
August 13, 2014 —

Dr. Bernard Harris with campers at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp 2014.

As the car engine revved and inched slowly through the city streets, more squeals came from the two kids looking on than from the wheels. The robotic car that the kids had built was operating smoothly, and no one could contain their excitement. 

“We constructed it, and now I know what we do can make a difference,” said 10-year-old Mark Torres Blas.

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp wrapped up its eighth year partnering with USC Viterbi last month. The two-week, all-expenses-paid summer camp, sponsored by the ExxonMobil Foundation and the Harris Foundation, aims to excite middle school students ages 10 to 13 about both college and the STEM field.

Founded by Bernard Harris, the first African-American astronaut to walk in space, the camp supports historically underserved and underrepresented students with limited opportunities.

Larry Lim, the camp's executive director, said that the camp’s mission is for “students to become immersed in a college environment and deeply explore science, engineering and mathematics,” with the hopes that they will continue to high school and college with a STEM major.

Winning admission to this year’s camp was highly competitive, with only 48 students out of 250 applicants receiving an invitation. 

This year’s theme was reducing traffic through light rail and other public transportation.

“The students’ personal experiences with traffic provided a living classroom to explore and understand urban ecosystems and urban infrastructure such as mass transit systems,” said Ben Louie, the camp's director. 

The first week consisted of skills building and critical thinking activities such as constructing straw bridges and building light rail vehicles. During the second week, campers built a master LEGO city and programmed a LEGO robotic car.  

Campers also learned the ins and outs of urban planning and the importance of being environmentally cautious when building a city. Ten-year-old Mark Torres Blas, a fifth grade graduate of Norwood Elementary who dreams of becoming an engineer, said the camp made him more environmentally aware than ever.

“I want to build more trains, or transportation that uses technology that doesn’t create a lot of pollution,” Blas said. “I want to save the planet.”

The campers attended classes taught by certified math and science teachers from around Los Angeles. They also had special guests, including astronaut Harris, who talked about his career and the importance of math and science.

The students went on multiple field trips, including visits to the Port of Los Angeles, the LAX Flight Path Learning Center and Disney California Adventure Park, where they learned about the properties of motion using roller coasters and theme park rides as real-world examples.

Twelve-year-old Jesus David Perez said he enjoyed the camp because it amplified his interests in science. Perez, a seventh grader from Southgate Middle School who likes “building things from scratch,” said he especially liked living on the USC campus. He one day hopes to return to USC Viterbi—as a full-time student.

“I want to apply to college and be an engineer,” said Perez. “I want to go to USC, because it’s the best school in engineering in the state.”