It’s okay to be a geek because geeks rule the world, astronaut Bernard Harris told 52 middle school youngsters during a special luncheon at NJIT’s ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. Harris, a physician turned astronaut, challenged the youngsters as they noshed on fried chicken and brownie lunches to contemplate careers in science, technology, engineering and/or math, a curriculum grouping often referred to as STEM.
Harris, a veteran of two space shuttle missions, was the first African American to walk in space. In conjunction now with the ExxonMobil Foundation, he spreads his gospel via a network of elite summer camp programs. NJIT was the only university in the New York Metropolitan region selected as a host. The program was available this year at 24 other US locations. It wraps up today at NJIT.
“Each of you was born into this world with infinite possibilities,” said Harris. “You are the only one to decide your special talents and skills.”
At the luncheon, he told his story of becoming an astronaut: First, finishing college at the University of Houston, then completing medical school and finally applying to NASA’s astronaut corps in 1989. “I won’t tell you it was easy to become an astronaut,” he said. “When I applied, there were 6,000 applicants of which only 150 were offered interviews. Of those interviewed only 23 were offered jobs.” In 1993, he went on his first space flight.
The students hailed from 36 school districts around the state and typically represented the academic crème de la crème of pre-teens, since admission to the Harris program is based on merit. Make the cut, though, and the two-week summer residency camp is free.
“I really liked being here,” explained 13-year-old Chase Upshaw, who will start eighth grade this fall in Liberty Middle School, West Orange. “I learned in robotics how to program a robot. Now my robot can complete tasks like moving rocks from one area to another.” A lesson in math about gears and how they work also captivated him.
Paras Shah, of East Brunswick, gave high grades to the Liberty Science Center trips as well as an excursion to ExxonMobil. “My favorite part was when the engineers taught us how to make silly putty by combining glue, water and Borax,” he said.
The luncheon followed a morning spent designing and building aluminum foil and straw rafts strong enough to sail across a tub and hold a cargo of pennies. From the lesson students were asked to distill Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy: the greater the amount of fluid displaced, the greater the buoyant force. Or conversely, an object whose density exceeds the density of the fluid will sink.
The camp is not about only work. It’s about learning who you are and the importance of teamwork. Many youngsters highlighted socializing among their memorable moments.
“I really enjoyed playing soccer outside with the other kids and making new friends,” said Walter David, 13, who will be an eighth grader this fall in Mt. Hebron Middle School, Montclair. Kari Milch, 11, who will start sixth grade at the same school, agreed. “I liked making new friends and the field trips are fun. I’d love to come back so I can make new friends and learn even more.” Her classmate from home, Michael Santos, also in the same year, enjoyed many of the same things.
The residence hall experience received kudos. “The best part of the program,” said 10-year-old Shahil Patel, “were lots of kids to talk to and play with.”
Shaina Doshi, 13, and her younger brother, Yash, 11, both students at Copeland Middle School in Rockaway Township, starting eighth and sixth grades respectively this fall, gave rave reviews to learning how to live on their own.
“We built a robot and made a big poster about them and we were responsible for getting the work done,” said Shaina. “It was like going to sleep-away camp and living by ourselves without our parents’ help,” said Yash, who is very much into electronics and building things.
The students attended daily classes in natural science, engineering, mathematics and technology, and were taught by faculty from NJIT and area school districts. Activities included classroom study, experiments, individual/team/group projects, weekly field excursions and guest speakers who motivate the students into fulfilling their dreams.
Repeated studies have shown that the United States faces a critical shortage of engineers, scientists and other mathematics- and science-literate workers. Through numerous efforts, ExxonMobil is supporting programs and organizations that focus on improving mathematics and science education from pre-school through higher education.
“Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are critical elements to our nation’s economic, security and medical advancements in the 21st century and beyond. Preserving our nation as the world leader in these fields requires an investment in our youth today,” said Harris. “We were glad to extend this opportunity to NJIT and appreciate their eagerness to support our program’s efforts in encouraging students to reach higher standards of achievement.”
For a complete list of campus locations, camp activities, student eligibility and selection criteria, please visit the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp website at www.theharrisfoundation.org. ExxonMobil Foundation is the primary philanthropic arm of the Exxon Mobil Corporation in the United States. Founded in 1998, the Harris Foundation, Texas, invests in community-based initiatives to support education, health and wealth. More than 2,500 students have participated and benefited from foundation programs since they began.