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Bernard Harris science camp lets kids' imaginations soar

Above, campers work on a project to make a "spacesuit" sample out of everyday materials.
Above, campers work on a project to make a "spacesuit" sample out of everyday materials.

Almost 50 middle school students got a chance to see how fun - and how vital - science and math are during the 2011 ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at UT Arlington.

The camp, which ran July 17-29, let students participate in a variety of fun experiments, field trips and group projects designed to build their knowledge and confidence in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM fields which are so important to success in a variety of professions. The camp, held at UT Arlington for the fourth time, aimed to reinforce students' early interest in the STEM courses and encourage them to pursue their interests as they progress in their education.

The two-week camp, during which 48 students stayed in on-campus dormitories, stressed that science and math are far from boring and that students should be proud to be interested in them. Bernard Harris Jr., a physician and former astronaut who became the first African-American to walk in space during a 1995 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, told the campers that a strong background in science and math will allow them to do anything they want.

“Looking at all of you, I’m looking at the future,” Harris said to the campers via Internet video chat during a July 26 event for area media in the Chemistry and Physics Building. “We want you to get an education. No matter what you do in life, it’s going to require expertise in math and science.”

Harris told the campers that education will take them anywhere they want to go and used his own story as an example. He became fascinated with space and science after seeing the July 1969 Apollo 13 moon landing on TV. He followed his dream all the way into space, participating in three shuttle missions, two of which were successful (an engine malfunction scuttled his first mission before it left the launching pad). He also utilized his passion for science to become a physician.

Harris also answered campers’ questions, explaining what space travel was like and detailing some of his most memorable space experiences, including what it felt like to be aboard the shuttle when it lifted off and zoomed to full speed - nearly 18,000 miles an hour - and how awed he was when he saw the blue globe of Earth from the perspective of space.

He said hard work, determination and having mentors to help along the way are the keys to succeeding. His final message for the campers was one of encouragement, as well as a challenge for them to reach their potential.

“There are three things I believe about each of you,” he said. “First, I think you all are multi-talented; you all have talents which are uniquely yours. Second, you are all multi-potential, meaning you can do anything you want; you’re not limited in what you can accomplish in any way. Third, you were all born for a reason; you’re all here to do something, and it’s up to you to figure out what it is. Don’t let anybody tell you what you can and can’t do.”

Following the video chat with Harris, the campers split up into teams and put some of the things they had learned during the camp to use. Each team was tasked with creating a six-inch section of a “spacesuit”; each team was given a budget and decided which materials to “buy.” Items included aluminum foil, wax paper, paper plates, duct tape and foam board. The teams assembled their “spacesuit” samples and then each was tested for strength using metal dropped through a PVC pipe. The team whose specimen suffered the least damage, and who used its budget most wisely, was the winner.

Campers enjoyed several field trips, including this one to the Dallas World Aquarium.
Campers enjoyed several field trips, including this one to the Dallas World Aquarium.

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camps are being held at 25 universities and colleges in the United States this year. Students at UT Arlington's camp, who are entering sixth, seventh or eighth grades this month, 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 minority students and students from economically disadvantaged households who might not otherwise have the chance for such an experience.

"The camp is important because it’s for kids from groups under-represented in the STEM fields, and anything we can do to correct that disparity will benefit us all in the long run,” said Greg Hale, executive director of the camp and assistant dean of science. "Also, the middle school years are when a lot of kids

stop loving math and science and start thinking those subjects aren't so cool. The camp shows them that science and math are cool and can help them achieve whatever they want. They get to be around other kids who feel the way they do about science and math, the way they would in college."

Beyond reinforcing their interest in math and science, the camp also stresses college readiness and 21st century skills. Among other activities, campers built robots, explored the energy content of different foods, and learned about waste water and drinking water treatment plants. Among the field trips they took was one to the Dallas World Aquarium.

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 founder of the Harris Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports math and science education and sponsors the summer science camps like the one 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.