Geeks rule at ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp
By Jennifer Berghom, Public Affairs Representative
Posted: 07/31/2012
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As part of their summer vacation, 48 local middle school students designed rockets and space suits, cultivated a garden using hydroponics and rubbed elbows with the first African American astronaut to walk in space during the fourth annual ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp held at The University of Texas-Pan American.

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Former astronaut Dr. Bernard Harris, who started the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp for middle school students, drops a metal punch onto a prototype for a "space suit" students were tasked to make for a competition July 25, 2012.

"It was exciting, I'm never going to wash my hand ever again," said Kayla Diaz, a rising sixth-grade student at IDEA Quest Academy near Edinburg, who had the opportunity to shake the hand of Dr. Bernard Harris, the former NASA astronaut, who was the first African American to walk in space and who started the youth summer camps, on July 25.

Harris came to campus to greet students and see them compete in a contest that required the children to create a prototype of a space suit that could withstand the impact of a center punch dropped on it. Students had to create the prototype using four materials and staying within an allotted budget. (The last time Harris came to UTPA was when the University held its first camp in 2009.) Before the competition, Harris gave the children a pep talk and encouraged them to pursue their love of science and math, even if other students may resent them for it.

"Here we believe that geeks rule the world," Harris said. "I'm a geek and I'm proud of it."

Harris also told them that most of the jobs that will be available in the future will require employees to have strong math and science skills.

Students also heard from Julio Rodriguez (BBA '78), exploration controller for ExxonMobil, who told students to take their studies seriously because they will be competing in a global job market, as well as from UTPA Vice President for University Advancement Veronica Gonzales and U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, TX-15.

In a videotaped message, Hinojosa welcomed the students and thanked ExxonMobil Corp. Chairman, President and CEO Rex Tillerson for his support for the camps and UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen for having the University host one of the camps.

The congressman also urged students to pursue their dreams and follow in the footsteps of Harris, who later founded The Harris Foundation.

"Our nation really needs young people, especially minorities, to study science, math, engineering and medicine," Hinojosa said. "Like Dr. Harris and many other outstanding scientists, you must study hard, plan for college and graduate."

The two-week-long camp, held at The University of Texas-Pan American July 15-27, allows children to learn more about careers related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through hands-on activities. The camp is part of the University's Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) program, which culminates with a weeklong celebration in the fall each year.

Throughout their stay, the students -- all from schools throughout Hidalgo and Cameron counties -- participated in a variety of projects, including creating a colony on the moon, building rockets out of soda bottles and assembling robots. They also took a field trip to the Coastal Studies Lab on South Padre Island.

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Klarissa Alvarado, pictured left, and Anais Salazar, seventh-grade students at Stell Middle School in Brownsville, build robots during the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp held at UTPA July 15-27, 2012.

"We dissected a starfish," said Alyssa Guajardo, a rising seventh-grade student at South Texas Preparatory Academy in Edinburg.

For Juan Briseño Jr., a rising seventh-grade student at Rafael Cantu Middle School in Mission, meeting Harris was the highlight of the camp.

"I will remember this day for as long as I live," said Briseño, a self-called math whiz. "Tell me any multiplication table, I will solve it like that."

As was the case with the other campers, Briseño said he wanted to attend the camp because the skills he learned will give him more opportunities for a better future and it gave him the chance to be with students who share the same enthusiasm for math and science.

"I came here for the brains and the fun," he said.

Learn more about the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp.

Anyone interested in contributing to UTPA's youth enrichment programs can contact Velinda Reyes, director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, at (956) 665-5301.