Harris stresses the importance of STEM education during visit to Sylvan Learning Center
Kids at Lansing’s Sylvan Learning Center recently learned about the importance of STEM – science, technology, engineering, math – compliments of a visitor from outer space.
Dr. Bernard Harris Jr. is a two-time space shuttle crew member and the first African American to spacewalk. He paid a visit to the learning center after a student, fifth-grader George Rollins, won a national competition sponsored by the National Math and Science Initiative, of which Harris is CEO.
While in Lansing he spoke to the small group of students and parents at Sylvan and later appeared with Rollins for a fifth-grade assembly at Herbison Woods Elementary School.
His message, while often couched in tales about his experiences on the shuttles Columbia and Discovery, was clear: STEM education is vital if the elementary students of today are going to be the leaders of tomorrow.
“In this day and age everything is involved in technology, everything we do no matter what profession you’re in,” Harris said. “You must have some proficiency in STEM. That’s how important it is.”
Harris, 63, said that when he was growing up, STEM education had not yet been established.
“But we had science class and we had math class. I was inspired by my science teacher, particularly in middle school,” Harris recalled. “I was probably George’s age when I got excited about the science and aerospace part of the business.”
During his discussion with the children, Harris was even more specific, saying his interest in space began July 20-21, 1969.
“I decided to be an astronaut 50 years ago, when we landed on the moon,” Harris said. “I was enamored about space prior to that, but when I saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon – that was it for me.”
In his talk with the children and parents, his message repeatedly returned to the importance of STEM education, particularly science. When noting the temperature in space can get as low as minus 165 degrees, he again gave a science lesson.
“How am I so certain about that? Because we were the first mission to take a thermometer into space,” he said before detouring the discussion to mercury thermometers.
“Many years ago, we knew that mercury had the ability to absorb whatever temperature was around it and change its shape – it expands,” Harris explained. “We put it in a device and as the temperature heats up, the mercury goes up.”
The crew couldn’t take a mercury thermometer into space because it won’t react in space the same way it does on Earth, he said. Through the use of a thermistor – a type of resistor whose resistance is dependent on temperature – they established the standard for space temperature is 200 degrees in the sunlight and minus 165 degrees in the darkness.
He reiterated the significance of STEM learning.
“It’s important from the standpoint of realizing how it is incorporated into careers going forward,” Harris said. “I always like to say if you want the ability to take care of yourself, your family and your community, it is incumbent to be educated. And being educated in STEM is right at the top of the list.”
Rollins seems to have a leg up on that.
The 10-year-old from DeWitt attended a weeklong summer camp where he participated in the Grand STEM Challenge, a national competition among Sylvan Learning Centers. This year’s challenge was to invent a piece of wearable technology that solved a problem.
Rollins’ invention was a fighter jet pilot helmet that senses when the pilot has passed out and alerts the copilot. Coincidentally, the youth plans to be a fighter pilot someday.
Prior to Harris arriving at the Sylvan Center, Rollins said he was excited to meet an astronaut.
“I’m going to ask him what it was like up there and if my invention might be used,” he said.
Harris asked some of the children what they wanted to do when they grew up.
“I even ask elementary school kids (what they want to do when they are adults), and it’s not necessarily that I want them to do what they say at the time,” Harris said. “I want them to have something on their mind they can explore – like George, who wants to be a pilot. That means he is going to do some research and he’s thinking about it.
“He will decide later on whether this, indeed, is what he wants to do, but he would have learned. It would have raised his knowledge in that space,” Harris continued. “He might switch to something else, maybe being a scientist, but each time they have something they are thinking about, and it’s an opportunity for you to grow as an individual.”