More than 500 fifth-graders will descend on the University of Central Florida campus on Monday for ACE Day, a program designed to show kids from poor neighborhoods that college isn’t out of reach.

The students will see hands-on demonstrations meant to grab their attention, from holding actual meteorites, to learning to conduct an orchestra, to handling animal bones.

“The kids are wonderful,” chemistry professor Mike Hampton said. “They’re like sponges. Everything you tell them, they’re excited to hear.”

It’s the fifth year for Achieve a College Education Day, or ACE Day, a program designed by The Burnett Honors College at UCF. It targets children from five area Title 1 schools that serve low-income and at-risk populations.

ACE Day is the culmination of six weeks of classes taught during the fall semester by Honors College students in elementary school classrooms. Those classes – and ACE Day, which caps it off in the spring – teach fifth-graders to aspire to attend college and learn about possible careers.

Many of the young students involved might not otherwise realize college is a possibility for them.

“College can be such a foreign concept. For many of them, the only person they know who has been to college is their teacher,” said Kelly Astro, director of research and civic engagement for The Burnett Honors College.

Participants will be bused to the campus and broken into smaller groups. Each will attend two hands-on sessions, one from a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field, and the other from the arts and humanities.

Hampton, who has participated in the annual ACE Day for several years, uses a hydrogen gas explosion to spark an interest in science.

“It’s exciting and it gets their attention,” Hampton said. “I try to show them that science in general – and chemistry in particular – is exciting.”

Organizing the annual event is a complex exercise in choreography, from transporting students to UCF from five schools to shepherding them around campus, touring a residence hall and feeding them a picnic lunch by the reflecting pond.

Even so, it’s a favorite among UCF students. Some 170 volunteers from the Honors College, LEAD Scholars Academy, student government and more are helping with the event.