Skip to content

The University of Texas at ArlingtonThe University of Texas at Arlington

College of Science

College of Science News

Bernard Harris camp encourages kids' interest in science, math

Dr. Bernard Harris
Dr. Bernard Harris celebrates with campers as their aluminum foil boat continues to float after they placed 400 pennies inside it.

Hard work, determination and - most importantly - education are the keys to success, whether you want to be a doctor or an astronaut or, in the case of Bernard Harris Jr., both. That was Harris' message to 48 middle school students Wednesday, July 21 during the 2010 ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp.

The two-week camp, held on the UT Arlington campus, focuses on building students' knowledge and confidence in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM subjects crucial to success in a wide variety of careers. Harris, who became the first African-American to walk in space during a 1995 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, told the campers there is no limit on their futures as long as they stay in school and never quit trying.

"Education is the key to everything I've done and the key to everything I will do going forward," Harris said. "I can't underscore enough how important it is for you."

Harris told campers he found the inspiration for what he wanted to do in life when he watched television coverage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon on July 20, 1969. He described what it was like putting on a spacesuit, adjusting to zero gravity and being aboard the shuttle when it blasted off and escaped Earth's orbit. Asked what he felt about becoming the first black American to walk in space, he had a concise response.

"Cool. It was very cool. I loved it," he said. "I was just thrilled that they chose me; I wasn't even thinking about the fact that I was the first African-American to do it. But yes, it was definitely an honor."

After Harris spoke with the campers, the students split into teams and participated in an exercise which tested their scientific knowledge. Each team built a "boat" of aluminum foil and drinking straws, then put its boat in a tub of water and placed pennies inside it one by one, seeing how many pennies their boat could hold before sinking. The winning team's boat held 405 pennies before sinking.

The campers then got to quiz Harris about his experiences as an astronaut, with students wanting to know everything from the top speed of the space shuttle (almost 18,000 miles per hour) to how the astronauts use the bathroom in space (which Harris good-naturedly described in sufficient detail). He stressed to campers three key points to always remember about themselves.

"First, you're multi-potential. You can do anything," Harris said. "Second, you're multi-talented. You have abilities that are uniquely yours. Third, and most importantly, you were born for a reason; there are no accidents. You were born to do something special. If you don't follow through and live up to your fullest potential, you cheat not only yourself, but all of us who would benefit from your unique talents."

The camp, being held at UT Arlington for the third time, aims to reinforce students' early interest in the STEM courses and encourage them to pursue their interests as they progress in their education.

"Middle school years are when kids start to switch from loving math and science to starting to think it's not so cool," said Greg Hale, assistant dean of science and director of UT Arlington's Science Education and Career Center. "We want them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, beyond their late middle school and high school years, where their peers might be disapproving. They can see what it's like in college, where they can be with a lot of people who are passionate about math and science."

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camps are being held at 30 universities and colleges in the United States this year. Students at UT Arlington's camp, who will be entering sixth, seventh or eighth grades this fall, were chosen from more than 400 applicants. They were selected based on their grades, test scores, teacher recommendations and interest in math and science. The program targets low-income and minority students who might not otherwise have the chance for such an experience.

Campers meet with university and high school faculty, perform experiments, go on field trips and learn from guest speakers.

Beyond reinforcing their interest in math and science, the camp also stresses college readiness and 21st century skills. Among other activities, campers will build robots during the camp, exploring energy content of different foods, and learn about waste water and drinking water treatment plants.

Harris holds a bachelor of science in biology from the University of Houston, a master of medical science from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a master of business administration from the University of Houston Clear Lake and a doctorate of medicine from Texas Tech University School of Medicine. He spent 10 years at NASA, where he was selected into the Astronaut Corps in 1990. He served as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1993, and was payload commander on the Discovery in 1995, when he became the first African-American to walk in space on Feb. 9, 1995.

While at NASA, he conducted extensive research in space adaptation and developed in-flight medical devices to extend astronauts' stays in space. He is currently chief executive officer and managing partner of Vesalius Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in early to mid-stage health care technologies and companies. He is also the founder of the Harris Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports math and science education and sponsors the summer science camps like the one being held at UT Arlington. The foundation supports programs that empower individuals - in particular minorities and the economically or socially disadvantaged - to recognize their potential and pursue their dreams.