UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
Former Astronaut and UH Alum Urges Kids to Dream Big
By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics Communications

When Bernard Harris encourages youth to reach for the stars, he is not just speaking metaphorically. 

The University of Houston alum and former astronaut fulfilled his childhood dream of going to space. Now he inspires disadvantaged middle school students to dream big by kindling their interest in math and science.

This year Harris is launching nationwide the summer science camp he started for Houston-area students a decade ago.

The camps target talented but underprivileged youth. For two weeks the selected students live in a college dormitory and participate in classroom study, lab experiments, team projects, and field trips. Besides enhancing students’ skills in math, engineering, science, and technology, the program also seeks to improve their critical thinking ability and self-confidence.

Held every summer at UH, Harris’ camp proved so successful that ExxonMobil provided funding to expand the program to eighteen other universities throughout the country, including some historically black colleges. And to meet growing demand, UH will now host two summer camps. The expanded program will reach more than 1,000 junior high students each year.

For Harris, the first African-American to walk in space, a strong math and science education was the key to realizing his dreams. He grew up in a poor family but graduated from UH in 1978 with a degree in biology and then earned a medical degree from Texas Tech University. He became a NASA astronaut in 1990 and was aboard the first U.S. shuttle mission to the Russian space station.

However, Harris became concerned that poor minority students were not getting the math and science skills they need to compete in a global economy. Worse, he found that many had set aside their dreams, convinced that big goals were out of their reach.

Promising kids from tough neighborhoods do not always get the social support they need, so the program gives them a taste of living independently and an opportunity to work with other bright, motivated youth. At these camps, Harris said, being smart is very cool.

University faculty and educators from local schools teach the students, with college students serving as camp counselors.

“We want to show these kids that being poor shouldn’t prevent you from achieving your dreams,” Harris said.

Harris’ own dogged pursuit of a childhood dream culminated in him donning a 350-pound space suit to float weightlessly hundreds of kilometers above the Earth. The view from up there cannot be beat, Harris said. 

That fascination with the cosmos that inspired him to become an astronaut still inspires many youth today, Harris added, and he hopes the summer camps can cultivate students’ scientific curiosity.

Harris’ career has taken him from physician to astronaut to businessman. He now runs a venture capital firm in Houston that invests in new medical technology. Despite his success, one goal eluded him. As a boy he watched the Apollo moon landing and dreamed of following in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. 

“If the head of NASA called today and said ‘We’d like you to be on the next mission to the moon,’ I’d do it in a heartbeat,” Harris said.
© 2007 The University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun Rd. Houston, Texas 77004, (713) 743-2255