- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

Stand back, college students — these youths are beyond mathematicians and science magicians. Are math and science really just for nerds and losers? No, not according to the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp.

This youth program is supported by Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., a retired astronaut, president of the Harris Foundation and the first black to walk in space.

Seventh-grader Theodore W. Levy IV of Melwood Elementary School in Upper Marlboro says that students are often picked on for making good grades in school. However, that is not the case at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science program, where students with good grades are encouraged and are not looked at as stereotypes. That is why Dr. Harris started the program, Theodore says.

Trying to keep students focused on science isn’t always easy. Making it fun and accessible helps, experts say. Dr. Harris‘ foundation holds camps at 30 campuses across the country each summer to focus on math and science.

Dr. Harris is a Texas native, born on June 26, 1956, in Temple. He graduated from Sam Houston High School San Antonio in 1974 and earned a bachelor’s in biology from University of Houston in 1978. In 1982 he graduated from Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

In 1985, Dr. Harris completed a residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Tempe, Ariz. While working on a National Research Council Fellowship at NASA Ames Research Center in 1986, he conducted research in the field of musculosketal physiology and disuse osteoporosis. The following year, he finished his fellowship, and in 1988 he trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine, Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio.

Dr. Harris was selected by NASA in January 1990, and in 1991 he became astronaut. In the spring of 1993, Dr. Harris was assigned as a mission specialist on STS-55, and Spacelab D-2. Afterward, he became the payload commander on STS-63, which was the first flight of a new joint Russian-American space program.

In 1995, he accomplished his childhood dream of walking in space. Dr. Harris retired in 1996 after logging more than 438 hours in space and traveling more than 7.2 million miles.

Dr. Harris founded his nonprofit in 1998 to develop math and science education programs, and as a crime-prevention program. He speaks to young people about his personal achievements through self-empowerment and self-determination to inspire young people.

The summer program is not meant to replace traditional science classes. It is an enrichment program that opens youths’ eyes to college settings and allows them to explore the challenges of math and science in a fun and adventurous setting. The young people, who attended the program at no cost, live in college dorms on campus for two weeks. There they get hands-on experience with different aspects of science and math.

The camps are facilitated by faculty at each university. University faculty and secondary instructors teach the classes. In addition, college and university students are utilized as senior camp counselors.

It was no ordinary Howard University event going on in the Blackburn Center on July 14, when about 150 students sat anxiously awaiting the kickoff of media day at the camp.

Media day kicked off with several guest speakers. One of the speakers was Dr. Harris himself, who shared stories of his achievements and of being an astronaut.

Taking time out from the big event, Dr. Harris spoke with The Washington Times about his program. Dr. Harris said that “the program originally started 15 years ago at the University of Houston. Since then, the program has now grown to 30 universities and colleges across the United States.”

Dr. Harris explained his reason for starting the program, which is to give minority kids a chance to go to college. He stressed the importance of education and also explained that the program is free of charge. However, in order for students to successfully get into the program, they must have obtained a B grade overall, as well as in math and science. In addition, the students have to show interest in both math and science, and they have to get recommendations from both math and science teachers. Youths must also show a passion for the subjects by writing an essay as to why they want to join the summer camp program.

In addition to the academic work involved with the program, the students take numerous educational field trips to different places. The camp experience is student-centered, team-oriented and collaborative, with practical real-world experience such as going to medical labs just as medical students do. At the same time, the students build self-confidence, decision-making skills and critical-thinking skills.

The uniqueness of the program is that it is broken down into three different locations, including the District, Maryland and Virginia, with each program site held on a college campus. The D.C. site is Howard University, the Maryland site is Bowie State University in Bowie and the Virginia site is the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Shonalika Mondal, a student from the Howard site, said, “It’s a really fun program, and I enjoy making new friends.” She said that she plans to get a review of math and science and to make new friends.

Theodore, who is from the Bowie State site, was asked the same question. He replied without hesitation: “The program is fun, and you get to learn about different robotic things and astronomy.” He also said he likes to meet new people who share his interests. Theodore plans to get a better understanding of science, and he is particularly interested in biology and genetics. He also mentioned that he plans to take the knowledge he gains from the program with him to Howard Middle School.

Mackenzie Williams, a representative of the University of Virginia, said she “really enjoys the program, and it is a lot of fun” and that she “really likes the activities and the hands-on experiences that they get to do.” Mackenzie said she wants the experience of people in college at the University of Virginia and “just being around other people who love math and science” like she does.

The highlight of the day was the contest among the three sites of putting pennies onto a boat made of aluminum foil to see which one could hold the most weight, and then carrying them across the water. Using the tools of mathematics and science, everyone gathered around to brainstorm on different ideas to carry pennies on an aluminum-foil boat. All participants watched the race from beginning to end as each boat moved swiftly across the water. Coming in first place was the University of Virginia site, whose boat carried the most pennies across the water.

Dr. Harris congratulated the youths.

He also offered inspirational advice: “Nothing is impossible if you believe in your dreams.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide