June 19, 2014

Former astronaut shares love of science, math, space with UT Arlington campers

Bernard Harris meets with 48 junior high students from across Dallas/Fort Worth taking part in a science camp.

Like countless youths at camps across the country, campers at the University of Texas at Arlington on Thursday morning made crafts out of cards, straws, cotton balls, bubble wrap and other household materials.

Unlike most of their fellow campers, they had their work judged by former astronaut Bernard Harris.

Some 48 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, each from a different school across the Metroplex, were on the fourth day of the two-week Exxon Mobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. Their morning mission was to design a Mars lander that would hit a target area, stay upright, meet their budget and keep the “astronaut” — a pencil eraser — from falling out.

The students had come prepared with diagrams and participated in a short presentation about the characteristics of Mars’ gravity and atmosphere.

“We think the key is to have more weight so that it will land flat and not tip over,” Bertheia Gay, 12, of Dallas said as the other members of her four-person team worked to refine their model.

Harris, the first African-American to walk in space, told the campers what it is like to see Earth from far above and stuck around to help test the landers, as did Exxon Mobil operations engineer Nancy Choi. Afterward Harris was heading to Oklahoma to visit another of the 20 camps his foundation is hosting nationwide.

Harris, a physician by training, was a mission specialist on the space shuttle Columbia in 1993 and payload commander on shuttle Discovery in 1995. It was on the latter mission, which involved a rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir, that he went on his groundbreaking spacewalk.

His camp is meant to give kids who might not otherwise be able to afford it the chance to experience overnight camp in a subject that holds their interest. Some 85 percent of previous campers who have reached college age have gone into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathmatics), Harris said, and many point to the camp as a strong reason for it.

“We are trying to connect the dots between what students learn in the classroom and how it is applied in the real world,” he said in an interview. The campers have already demonstrated an interest in STEM subjects, he added, and the setting allows them to get a taste of what college is like.

To qualify for the free camp, which includes staying in dorms and eating in dining halls, students must submit an essay, have acceptable grades, be recommended by a teacher and be from a historically underrepresented group or qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Students from Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson, Rockwall and Tarrant counties are among the participants.

Manuel Perez of Hurst and Luis Murillo of Grand Prairie, both 11, were having a blast with their respective teams.

“I like building things,” said Manuel, explaining that the engineering aspect of the camp interested him the most.

For Luis, Harris’ visit made an impression.

“It’s pretty cool when an astronaut comes to your house,” he said.

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