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Science rules

Math-science camp encourages leaders of tomorrow

Published: Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 23:06

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Bernard Harris, the first African-American to walk in space, along with camp participants, test strength of space suit swatches made to withstand small meteor hits at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp.

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The Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp is able to track students’ progress and welcome them back as camp counselors beyond their middle school years.

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(Below) Bernard Harris, the first African-American to walk in space, speaks with middle school campers during Tuesday’s activities.

This week, 50 middle school students from around the Brazos Valley took over the Texas A&M campus with their excitement, their smarts and their willingness to learn.

A two week, all-expense paid program, the ExxonMobil BernardHarris Summer Science Camp, has allowed many students the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only do they each get to stay in a dorm like a real college student, they are able to interact with professors, college-aged counselors and even Dr. Bernard Harris himself, known best for being the first African American to walk in space.

When Harris spoke to the students on Tuesday, he acknowledged that loving math and science is not always the most popular thing.

“Sometimes we get teased for being into math and science,” Harris said. “But you know what, I am a geek and proud of it. Geeks run the world. You tell those people that make fun of you that one day they will be working for you.”

Harris knew from a young age after watching the moon landing in 1969 that he wanted to become an astronaut. After receiving his 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 the Texas Tech University School of Medicine, Harris was finally able to fulfill his dream of going into space in 1990.

Now a veteran astronaut for more than twenty years, he has logged more than 438 hours and traveled more than 7.2 million miles in space.

Harris asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. The answers ranged from veterinarian, to actress, to inventor.

“You can be or do anything you want to,” Harris said. “We want to inspire you to dream. A dream is really just a goal for your future.”

Harris said he wants his camp to be a safe place for students to express their intelligence.

“I think this camp is about putting these kids in an environment where it is okay to be smart,” he said. “It is so important to keep them encouraged, especially girls and minorities because we need more in the STEM fields.”

The 50 students were selected based on their “B” or better grade average, their test scores, an essay and letters of recommendation from their math and science teachers.

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp is a nationwide camp that boasts 20 different locations, allowing students to work in a hands-on environment, cooperating in team-based activities to better learn the science behind the newest technologies, understand environmental issues and engage with math in daily life.

Since 2006, the program has served more than 7,000 students.

“This is the first time Texas A&M University has had this camp here,” said Corliss Outley, co-director of the camp and associate professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Science. “The campers are very engaged and we are seeing a lot of gifted and talented students, some of which are not in gifted and talented classes in their schools. The students are very intuitive and creative thinkers; many could even rival college students.”

She said the purpose of the camp is to expose middle school students to STEM and the fields surrounding it.

“We need more individuals involved in STEM, especially low-income and underrepresented groups of students,” Outley said. “Many of these students would never have gotten an opportunity like this without the camp. Here they get to meet college students that could be role models. For many kids, this is their first time on campus and it really gets them to see what it feels like to be a college student.”

The students interact with faculty and staff from A&M, as well as students in research experience.

Lisako McKyer, co-director of the camp and associate professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, said the camp is a chance for the students to aim for lofty goals.

“I believe this camp will help those kids already interested in science related fields to persist in their pursuit of education and careers in this realm,” she said. “But I also believe that these campers will be encouraged to follow their dreams — regardless of what it might be — knowing that there are caring adults who want them to aim high.”

Each day, new activities await the students, from learning how to do stage make-up for zombie dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” to spacesuit challenges allowing each student to find his or her unique calling.

On Friday, the camp will close out with a banquet where the various groups of students will present their final projects they have been working on for the entire camp.

But the camp experience does not stop there.

“One of the great things about The Bernard Harris Foundation is that they have been doing this camp for about seven years and they actually keep track of the students from the first original camp,” she said. “We will be doing follow up sessions in the fall and spring semester with the kids. The foundation has shown that there are a high percentage of students that are successful, who are not only going on to college but also are going into the STEM field. It is rare that you can track students for so long and see their progress.”

Once a student leaves middle school for high school, they can also come back and become a junior counselor for the camp.

Outley also emphasized the important role the professors played from A&M and their willingness to selflessly serve these young people.

“All of the faculty members that have taught at the camp have not gotten paid,” she said. “There are architect professors, education, agriculture, teachers from the school of rural public health and liberal arts. All of them did it for free, and for us that says a lot about A&M’s commitment to the future. They are helping to ensure that these young people are prepared to transform communities and change lives.” 

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