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Astronaut Inspires Students to Reach for the Stars at Summer Science Camp

Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Young student learns at science camp.

Young Engineers: Student teams designed and built a mock Mars lander with the goal of providing the safest landing for a LEGO astronaut while remaining within a budget.

It isn't often that you get to meet a real-life science superhero, but nearly 50 middle schoolers from across Indiana did just that this week at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp on the Rose-Hulman campus.

One of 20 such camps around the country, the all-expense-paid program gave selected youngsters a two-week residential experience, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet Bernard Harris, the camp's namesake and founder, who was also the first African-American to perform a spacewalk.

"When I was about your age, I was fascinated with science and science fiction," Harris told the students. "When human beings left this planet and went to the moon, I was enamored."

Harris emphasized the importance of education, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). He asked the campers how many of them had ever downloaded a program or app, then asked if any of them have ever uploaded something they created.

"You don't just want to be a consumer. You can use your expertise to upload the knowledge," he said.

The message of empowerment and encouragement was born of Harris's own experience. Growing up in the 1960s, he later explained, television news reports ignited a spark of determination.

"On one channel I saw the civil rights movement; on the other channel, I saw us going to the moon," he said. "I saw it as a challenge when I didn't see anyone [in the space program] who looked like me."

With the camp, now in its 20th year, Harris hopes to foster that same kind of curiosity and tenacity in the next generation of engineers and scientists.

"I do this because I want to inspire these kids to fulfill their dreams. I want them to have the tools to do that," he added.

Science Superhero Bernard Harris Talk

Minds Inspired: Campers hung on Harris's every word as he told of his experiences in space.

Over the course of the two-week camp, students have tackled a forensic chemistry project to derive clues from a hand-written note, test the water quality from a campus pond, and create filtering devices to purify water. They have also taken field trips to visit engineers and scientists working at an Indiana wind farm, a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility, and GE Aviation, a global aircraft parts manufacturer.

But the highlight of the camp was Harris's visit, which included a talk about his experience as an astronaut, and a spirited competition to design and build a replica Mars lander. Students were required to develop plans, "purchase" parts, and construct the projects with the aim of providing the safest landing for a LEGO astronaut while remaining within a budget.

Harris oversaw the testing of the devices, which earned points for accuracy and control of descent, as well as documentation.

This is the first time the camp, which targets kids from populations that are underrepresented in STEM fields, has been hosted by Rose-Hulman. It is the only host site in Indiana.

"One of the reasons we selected Rose-Hulman is that this embodies what we want to do in terms of promoting STEM education," Harris said.