RUSKIN — Four middle-school girls huddled around a table, lining a cardboard box with aluminum foil and plotting their next move.
The group, along with several others, had about 40 minutes to figure out how to turn their creation into something that could cook food using heat from the sun.
They spray-painted the white box with black paint and secured a shiny compact disc in each corner to reflect the sun.
“I think if it’s white, it will probably cool off, but black absorbs the heat,” explained 13-year-old Shields Middle School eighth-grader Jacquelyn Manzanares.
The girls were among 22 Hillsborough middle-schoolers who this week are attending a four-day alternative energy camp at Hillsborough Community College’s SouthShore campus in Ruskin, where they are learning about alternative energy and its environmental impact.
This is the fourth year for HCC to co-host the energy camp with the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center, a National Science Foundation Center of Excellence in high-tech manufacturing.
The students — rising seventh- and eighth-graders at Shields, Pierce and Turkey Creek middle schools — are attending because they were selected for their schools’ Advancement Via Individual Determination programs, or AVID.
For many of them, English is a second language. And many hope to be the first in their families to attend college.
“They’ve never done anything like this,” said Nina Stokes, camp director. “A lot of them come here thinking science and math are too hard. We’re trying to use hands-on activities to hook them in. We hope they leave with a better understanding of energy, renewable energy, an increased confidence in their science and math skills and maybe even consider a career in the energy arena.”
Stokes is project manager for the Florida Energy Systems Consortium, a research arm for the state’s colleges and universities that focuses on the energy industry.
The camp began Monday with a fossil-fuel mining activity. The students took a field trip to TECO on Tuesday and built the solar cookers Wednesday. They also learned about solar cells, solar thermal energy, wind energy and home-efficiency.
The camp wraps up today with a tour of the Ruskin campus, which is certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building program.
The students will also attempt to toast marshmallows for s’mores in their solar cookers, build windmills and experiment with hydro-cars powered by water.
This year, to the surprise of the camp organizers, girls outnumber boys 16 to 8.
“We need more women in science,” Stokes said.
Students at 46 middle schools and 27 high schools enter the AVID program in the summer before seventh grade, when they have the option to spend three weeks at school, learning skills in organization, leadership and public speaking.
It is a chance for them to get to know their AVID classmates and teachers, whose classes they will take for the next two years, and attend camps like this one together.
“This is the cherry on top, to go to HCC and see what a real college is like,” said Dawn Simon, a Pierce Middle AVID teacher. “The majority really look forward to science the next year because they see it’s so hands-on.”
On Wednesday, the students heard a quick presentation from instructor Kyla Donlevy before building their solar cookers. They finished the exercise by going outside to test their cookers in the sunlight, to see which spots heated up the fastest.
“We don’t give a lot of instructions,” said Donlevy, who teaches biology and environmental science at Durant High School during the school year. “They’ve got to do some critical thinking.”
A group of boys opted to use a box with taller walls and to cover cardboard panels with foil to create a roof. They found that their cooker had promise — the inside heated up right away.
Turkey Creek Middle seventh-grader Paulino Rodriguez, 12, said the camp was a good chance to apply what he learned in science class last school year.
“We get to experience it,” he said. “It’s exciting.”