Fort Worth

Astronaut inspires future scientists at UT Arlington camp

Retired NASA astronaut Dr. Bernard Harris helps summer campers construct a Mars Lander during the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Camp at UT-Arlington, Monday, June 27, 2016. The campers used bubble wrap, tape, straws, plastic cups and various other supplies to construct a craft that would survive a drop from two meters. Special/Brandon Wade
Retired NASA astronaut Dr. Bernard Harris helps summer campers construct a Mars Lander during the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Camp at UT-Arlington, Monday, June 27, 2016. The campers used bubble wrap, tape, straws, plastic cups and various other supplies to construct a craft that would survive a drop from two meters. Special/Brandon Wade Star-Telegram

Justin Mitchell cared about a tiny eraser as if it were a man.

Mitchell, 11, and three other middle school students called themselves Team Education Squad. They were among teams of teens and pre-teens tasked with designing a model spacecraft that can safely land.

A plastic cup was the main piece of the team’s spacecraft, and the eraser represented the astronaut. Straws, tape and plastic bubble wrap proved handy in making the spacecraft.

“Did he fall out?” asked a team member as the spacecraft was test-dropped.

“No, he is still in,” answered Mitchell with a smile. “It worked.”

Finding solutions to scientific questions was the object of the Bernard Harris Mars Lander Challenge — a hands-on class in a two-week summer science program at the University of Texas at Arlington. About 40 North Texas middle school students explored science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) during the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp.

The camp, founded by an astronaut, Dr. Bernard Harris Jr., is one of 10 at university campuses nationwide. Since 2006, the program has reached more than 19,000 students. It allows students from low-income or working-class families to be exposed to STEM learning in a college setting. The students live on campus for two weeks.

“It’s important for us to invest in America’s future,” said Harris, who was the first African-American to walk in space.

‘We want to make this fun’

Harris said America’s future rests in the hands of today’s students, who are coming of age at a time when technology — cellphones, mobile tablets, HD TVs — drives everything people do.

Greg Hale, an assistant dean at UTA’s College of Science, said the university has been hosting the camps for about six years.

“This is the most fun two weeks of my year,” said Hale, adding that the summer science program’s overall theme is water quality. Students particpate in field trips and a mock town meeting in which students must address the issue of water supply. The Mars Lander Challenge is an activity that takes place at the 10 universities hosting the camps, he said.

The camp aims to inspire students to become tomorrow’s innovators by making STEM disciplines interesting and interactive.

“We want to make this fun,” Harris said.

The physician and former astronaut was a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-55/Spacelab D-2 in 1993. He served on the first flight of the joint Russian-American Space Program in 1995.

“You must believe that you can do it because you are always going to have naysayers that say: ‘You can’t do that,’ for whatever reason. It may be the color of your skin. It may be your sex. You have to have that strength that is inside of you that says that ‘I can do it and I will do it.’ 

‘A lot of teamwork’

On Monday, students participated in a space-themed competition. Harris guided them through the program, which consisted of designing a spacecraft with household materials.

Shana Billiot, 12, of Arlington said they had to make sure that the astronaut/eraser didn’t fall out of their spacecraft. Billiot, who wants to be an engineer and novelist, said the project was a new, fun experience. She said math and science can be fun.

“You will need it later on in life, but it is important to focus on education but having fun at the same time,” she said.

Mitchell, who will attend Fort Worth’s Elder Middle School in the fall, said the camp has been an amazing experience.

“I like that it is really engaging and has a lot of teamwork,” said Mitchell, who wants to be a biochemist when he grows up.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

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