High school students just returning to classes might share stories of summer jobs, vacation trips or just hanging out. Naperville North High School senior Kimberly Dauber can talk about spending an intense 5½ weeks in Socorro, New Mexico, capturing images of a near-Earth asteroid with a computer-operated telescope, attending college-level lectures and doing advanced math homework.
If all that sounds too nerdy to be much fun, think again. Kimberly said she had an incredible experience at the Summer Science Project on the campus of New Mexico Institute of Technology.
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"My favorite part of SSP was getting to know kids from everywhere," Kimberly said. "We worked hard, but we played really hard too."
Kimberly, a straight-A student at Naperville North, was looking for a challenging science summer program when she found information about SSP on the Internet. The 55-year-old program for gifted incoming high school seniors with a high aptitude in science and math draws students from around the world. Kimberly was one of 72 students chosen from 742 applicants for the program that is held in two locations -- Socorro, N.M., and Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Kimberly said the 36 participants at the New Mexico site included students from China, India, Romania, New York City, Texas and places in between.
"I loved learning about where they came from," she said.
One boy from China said part of his family lived in a place where they had running water only one hour a day. Kimberly's roommate also was from China and had come to the United States a couple years before to attend a boarding school.
"I admire her so much," Kimberly said. "Until I got to know her, I never really appreciated how difficult it is to be an international student."
All the students spoke English, but with varying levels of proficiency. Despite their different backgrounds, the students found they had much in common, she said.
"A lot of us had a love for music," said Kimberly, who plays piano and the euphonium in the Naperville North marching band.
Even doing math homework was a party, with one student who didn't speak English well helping the others out.
"It's really true that math is the universal language," Kimberly said. "SSP really confirmed for me that I like to be around math and science people a lot."
Richard Bowdon, executive director of the Summer Science Program, said Kimberly's experience is typical of the students who participate.
"It's funny -- we tell them it will be a great social experience, but they're always surprised anyway when that happens. They expect a bunch of one-dimensional science geeks grinding away, and they find wonderfully diverse, brilliant peers, working hard and having fun too," he wrote in an email.
"They get a college-like experience surrounded by their peers in terms of interests and potential, which most high schools can't possibly provide. They can then focus and upgrade their aspirations for college and career," he said.
Kimberly said some of the students won't go into science careers. She herself is interested in international security and doesn't expect to study astronomy. But while at SSP, she and the other students wrote their own computer software to measure an asteroid's position precisely and calculate its orbit around the sun.
The students' asteroid, a minor planet, was named 1998 ML14, said Kimberly, explaining that asteroids are typically named by the year they were discovered, the location they were found or the person who found them. Studying asteroids can have several purposes, she said. Some asteroids could potentially be mined for metals or be the sites of future space exploration. Scientists also track asteroids to predict which ones might crash into the earth.
1998 ML14 was a typical asteroid located between the Earth and Mars, Kimberly said.
"I can tell you that it's probably not going to hit the Earth," she said.
Kimberly said she also was able to identify many stars and constellations as well.
"You gain a good appreciation for how big the universe is," she said. "You're in the middle of the desert. You look up and there are stars. You wonder why you haven't seen them before."
When not attending lectures by day and studying the sky by night, the students went on several field trips, took swing dance lessons and yoga, perused art galleries in Santa Fe and visited old town Albuquerque.
Field trips took them to the Very Large Array, an observatory with 27 radio antennas; Magdalene Ridge Observatory; and the Trinity Site on White Sands Missile Range, the site of the first atomic bomb explosion.
Kimberly said White Sands National Park was a sight to behold. "That was incredible," she said.
Near the end of the program, the students held a talent show. Kimberly and a friend rewrote a cartoon script to turn it into a parody of the science program.
"It was nice to have a group of people who would go along with whatever crazy idea I had," she said.
Into the future
Kimberly acknowledged that hasn't always been her experience in high school. She's carried straight A's when taking advanced placement classes and twice achieved a perfect 36 on the ACT, said her mom, Dee Dauber. Kimberly's a leader on Naperville North's FIRST Robotics team, a member of the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering academic team and has competed in the Scholastic Bowl. She also belongs to the YMCA Youth and Government, Naperville Park District Youth Ambassadors, the Naperville Library Teen Advisory Group and Naperville North's swing dance club. Kimberly said she tries to be involved in school activities whenever she's available, whether it's a school dance or a blood drive.
Other summers, Kimberly has participated in the University of Illinois' Exploring Your Options engineering camp and the All Girls/All Math program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Dee Dauber said her daughter had been accepted into other selective summer programs this year, but SSP was the best fit.
"It gave her a chance to spread her wings, living far from home for the summer," she said.
Kimberly said she expects to keep in touch with her peers from SSP and likely many of them will turn up in the same colleges. Her own current first choice is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by Yale University. She said she also would encourage other qualified high school students to apply for SSP.
"SSP was an incredible experience," she said. "I would do it again in a heartbeat."