By Tim Jimenez

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A group of middle school students, at Temple University for a two-week science camp, played the role of NASA engineers today.

Their mission: land a spacecraft on Mars.

NASA’s future might be found in a classroom like this, with 54 eager students taking part in the Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp facing “The Mars Lander Challenge.”

(Harris is a former NASA astronaut who became the first African-American to walk in space. He Skyped with the students on this day.)

The teams had 30 minutes to design, build, and test a mini Mars lander made of items that included a plastic cup, soda straws, and bubble wrap.

“It was just chaos,” says Akina Nichols (far right in photo), an eighth grader from Salem Middle School, in New Jersey.

Susan Janson Varnum, leading the project, is part of Temple University’s School of Chemistry.

“Each material simulates something that an engineer would use in a design and development project,” she notes.

The landers were dropped six feet onto a bull’s-eye and had to protect a ping-pong ball playing the role of astronaut.

“The first thought running through our heads was that we needed a strong base and then we would need a parachute that had angles,” said seventh grader Gurleen Grewal of Springside Middle School, in Burlington, NJ (second from right), a member of the winning team. She doesn’t see engineering in her future, but still has high hopes.

“(I’ll) probably be a doctor or a biomedical surgeon,” she said today. “People who work with things that would probably go into your body, like a knee surgery and you need a knee replacement, we can probably make it.”

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