Summer Science Camp Brings Former NASA Astronaut and Program Founder to U.Va.

July 17, 2007 -- Launching rockets and building rafts might be commonplace at science camp, but it’s not often that these campers get to interact with the namesake of their camp. This was just the case, however, for the participants of the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, a two-week program that began last week at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Harris, the first African American to conduct a spacewalk, was on Grounds last Thursday to meet a group of middle-school students participating in the program he founded.

The day kicked off with a rocket launch in Nameless Field. The brightly colored rockets, built the day before by the students, were sent into the air as the students used an inclinometer to observe and then calculate how far they flew. Students were privileged to work with two astronauts that day, as Kathryn Thornton, former astronaut and associate dean of graduate programs in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, was present to lead the rocket launch.

Harris, who joined the astronaut corps in 1990 and completed two missions, cited that he has traveled 7.2 million miles. “Has anyone else traveled that far, besides Kathy?” he asked with a laugh. Harris also offered anecdotes on life in space, recollecting the especially beautiful view of Earth from out in space, for which he claims a photograph cannot do justice. Students were intrigued by Harris’ experiences, asking what he did for fun and what he ate in space -- one student even informed Harris that she would like to be an astronaut as well.

ExxonMobil representatives Trace Scrivner and Frank Kerze were also on hand to talk with the students about their jobs as well as lead them in a raft-building competition in which the winning vessel would be able to float with the most weight (in this case, coins). Using aluminum foil, pennies and straws, the children learned about Archimedes’ principle of water displacement — the student-built raft that held the most pennies before sinking totaled 87 pennies.

Harris started this program 10 years ago at the University of Houston, and it has now grown to 19 campuses across the country. Students participating in the camp are from the local central Virginia area and had to have been recommended by their teachers, in addition to showing an interest in math and science.

“The program will be able to partner with students’ teachers to enhance what they do for their youngsters,” said Carolyn Vallas, the camp director and director of the Center for Diversity in Engineering. “This is a wonderful opportunity to provide some support for their teachers in terms of motivating students to engage in math and science areas.”

Harris said camps like this did not exist when he was growing up, and he would like to see children today provided with the opportunity to enhance their math and science skills, especially if they already show an interest.

“All the camps are focused on inclusion and diversity, trying to ensure that all of our community members have the opportunity to get a good education and, more importantly, fulfill their dreams,” Harris said.

Studies show that the United States will have a shortage of more than 500,000 engineers and scientists by 2010. This program aims to interest children in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) earlier, in hopes they will eventually work in those areas.

This is the second year ExxonMobil has sponsored the program, and it is the first time the camp has been held at the University of Virginia.

“I’m glad that the camp is here at U.Va.,” Harris said. “I can think of no better place to host this camp.”