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Veteran astronaut Bernard Harris visits Lamar

Students from area middle schools spent a day with veteran astronaut Bernard Harris, Friday in the Dishman Art Museum at Lamar University. The Space Day event was part of the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. Now in its sixth year at Lamar University, the program aims to stimulate student interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Harris visited with students, answered questions and provided insight into the space program as well as the importance of fostering interest in the STEM fields in young students. He said the middle-school age is a critical time to reach students to help them retain an interest in science.

“They are turned on and excited about science right now,” he said. “But there are a lot of studies that show this is also the time they begin to get turned off. Programs like this one are designed to keep kids who have already decided that this is what they want to do excited about the field and continue to want to do that throughout high school and, hopefully, into college.”

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Harris said his favorite part about visiting the camps is the question and answer period between him and the students.

“You never know what kinds of questions you’re going to get,” he said.

Now in its seventeenth year, the program began at the University of Houston. According to Harris, the camp began a partnership with ExxonMobil seven years ago, allowing the program to expand to twenty universities nationwide, including Lamar.

Otila Urbina, research assistant professor of professional pedagogy at Lamar, said there is a competitive recruiting and application process one must go through in order to attend the summer science camp. Organizers choose 48 students from more than 150 applicants.

“They are all good candidates,” Urbina said. “These students are often chosen from underrepresented communities, and they are really smart kids. Often times students like these can fall through the cracks, but here they have an opportunity to be recognized for their hard work. They realize they are somebody, and just recognizing that may open doors for them in the future.”

Students participated in a spacesuit design competition using household items to simulate the materials used by NASA to protect astronauts from the conditions in space.

Twelve-year-old Brandon Nguyen, seventh grader at Groves Middle School said his favorite part of Space Day was putting together the layers for the astronaut suit. Nguyen’s group won the spacesuit swatch competition.

“I had to think outside of the box,” he said. “I had to put a clear layer over the reflective layer so the heat would stay out. But at the same time, it had to have durability. Our design had a small impact hole in the back of it from the test. Others didn’t, so I was surprised when we won.”

In addition to learning about Harris’ experience during shuttle missions, students also learned how the STEM fields integrate into their lives.

Eric Linares, Beaumont freshman at Baylor University, was a student in the original Lamar group seven years ago and is now serving as a camp councilor for this year’s camp at Lamar. He said that while the focus in curriculum has changed, the overarching goal of the program remains.

“In the beginning the curriculum had a lot to do with outer space, but now it has more to do with how we interact with the natural world,” he said. “The new concept is ‘Living in Harmony with Nature.’ We will take trips to Shangri La Botanical Gardens and the Big Thicket Preserve.”

Linares said he returned to the program as a camp councilor because of the importance of emphasizing STEM field subjects to young students.

The program opens up kids to the experience of engaging in real, hands-on activities that they aren’t really getting anywhere else. It helps develop their interests in the STEM fields and gives them experience working on projects in those fields.”

Thirteen-year-old Essence Fontenot, eighth-grader at Vincent Middle-School in Beaumont, said her favorite part of Space Day was hearing Harris describe the Milky Way. 

“That really interested me,” she said. “I have always wanted to know how it looks from space.”

Fontenot said she learned about different career opportunities and how they relate to science.

“My passion is culinary arts, but I think you can take science and combine the two,” she said. “Some chefs use nitrogen and things like that, so I think that I can take an understanding of science to help me with my dream.”

Fourteen-year-old, Sydni Doiron, eighth grader at Port Neches Middle School said she saw the camp as an opportunity to learn about different aspects of her future profession.

 “When I grow up I really want to be an architectural designer,” she said. “When I read the application for the camp it said it would help students interested in engineering, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to help me be what I want when I grow up.”

All of the students at the camp were excited to meet Harris, the first African-American astronaut to perform a space-walk mission.

“It was really cool to learn how they use different kinds of fuel to get the shuttle into space and how the ship works and everything,” Doiron said.

 “It’s a once in a lifetime chance,” Fontenot said. “It’s not like you will just run into an astronaut on the street.”

Harris said he sees great potential in the students the summer program reaches.

“This group is going to be interesting to watch,” he said. “I think they are going to be tremendous contributors to this community and probably the nation. These are some smart kids.”

For more information about the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp visit www.theharrisfoundation.org.