Fifty local middle school youth are experiencing a different kind of vacation that includes not only summer fun, but an opportunity to get ahead in school and a chance to experience college life during the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at The University of Texas-Pan American.
The two-week residential camp gives students first-hand experience with experiments, role models and innovative programs to encourage their continued participation in math and sciences courses in school.
The camp kicked off July 19 at the University and campers and their parents were invited to the celebration where Dr. Bernard Harris Jr. shared his story of how he overcame his meager beginnings to become the first African American to walk in space.
"I'm a believer in education and particularly in this day and age, a believer in math and science education. This camp is trying to get the community engaged in the notion of education and make sure that our young people have the opportunity to do whatever it is they want to do and to follow their dreams," Harris said. "Dreams are powerful. Any goal or great accomplishment that you are going to achieve in your life starts with a dream. After you have that dream in place, you have to be willing to work hard to make it happen."
Harris said as a small boy he dreamed of becoming an astronaut and described what it was like to go to space.
"Every astronaut's dream is to see the earth from space," Harris said. "What I saw was beautiful; this big blue ball, with white swirls of clouds on this backdrop of a sea of stars called the Milky Way."
Students were also able to talk to Harris one-on-one and ask him questions about his space adventures.
During the camp, students will attend daily classes in natural science, engineering, mathematics and technology, taught by UTPA faculty and secondary classroom teachers, who also receive professional development training. Activities include classroom study, experiments, individual, team and group projects, weekly field excursions and guest speakers who will motivate students to fulfill their dreams.
U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15) said exposing this type of learning to middle school children is very important because they are searching for what they want to do in life.
"We've found that children at those ages are ripe to learn when they see it for themselves, hear it from role models that look like them, and see that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers are not only challenging, but rewarding and they will enjoy a good quality of life."
Rosendo Cruz, program officer for Education and Diversity at ExxonMobil, also attended the kick-off celebration and said he hoped students would realize the different career opportunities available to them during the camp.
"We hope they come out of this camp excited about math and science and realize that they too can become the next generation of scientists for this country," Cruz said. "We hope that not only for the kids, but for the parents, that they realize that they can help make those dreams come true for them."
UTPA Interim President Dr. Charles A. Sorber said he was excited to add this camp to the growing list of programs in place at the University, like UTPA's annual Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week, to encourage education in the STEM fields.
"This is part of our broader HESTEC activities where we give people the opportunity to understand technology, and where young people have the opportunity to get involved in mathematics and science and engineering," Sorber said. "And in that process we hope that they will get more involved and take it on as a passion just as some of us have."
The summer science camps are supported by the Harris Foundation and ExxonMobil. UTPA was chosen as one of 30 universities across the nation to host the camp.
"I think that UTPA is the perfect place for the expansion of our camps," Harris said. "We are becoming a country of minorities and we want to ensure that all communities have the same access to education and the same ability to fulfill their dreams."
For more information about the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, visit www.theharrisfoundation.org