Former astronaut shares how to get Scouts hooked on STEM subjects

Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. tells why your Scouts should study science, technology, engineering, and math—and how to get them interested.

Read an exclusive snippet of discussion from Scouting magazine’s interview with Dr. Harris that didn’t make it into the print magazine. (You won’t want to miss what he’s got to say about the future of our nation’s space programs.)

Get inspired by this example of one council’s merit badge clinic focused on teaching science, technology, engineering, and math merit badges.

ASTRONAUT. PHYSICIAN. ENTREPRENEUR. Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. has worn many hats in his 55 years on planet Earth. And above it. As he watched the first moon landing in July 1969 on the black-and-white TV set in his family’s San Antonio home, the then-13-year-old found himself intuiting the pieces of the scientific puzzle that must have come together to make the historic event happen. 

“In the eyes of this little boy, I saw more than just human beings leaving the planet,” he recalls. “I saw myself following in their footsteps. None of that would have been possible without the science and engineering behind it. I understood that if we were going to explore the moon and go beyond—which is my interest, because I’m a sci-fi buff—the only way to get there was through that type of innovation and technology.”

Dr. Harris followed in Eagle Scout Neil Armstrong’s footsteps all right, though not by walking on the moon (Harris was a Cub Scout). Instead, after graduating from high school, he earned a degree in Biology from the University of Houston and a doctorate in medicine from Texas Tech University School of Medicine. After completing his residency at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Harris trained on a fellowship at NASA’s Ames Research Center and qualified as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine in San Antonio.

In 1991, Dr. Harris finally fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a NASA astronaut. He flew two missions in space: on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1993 (STS-55) and aboard the first flight of the Russian-American Space Program in 1995 (STS-63), during which he became the first African-American to walk in space. In 1998, two years after leaving NASA, Dr. Harris launched The Harris Foundation to support math and science education for America’s youth “as a means to give back,” he says.

Space (the textual, not the cosmic kind) prevents me from giving you the full details of Dr. Harris’ career and accomplishments. Check him out on the Internet—and prepare to feel like an underachiever, if you don’t already. Suffice it to say, Dr. Harris knows a galaxy-load about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). He has gained significant experience serving youth through a series of Exxon-Mobil Foundation-supported science camp programs over which he presides each summer at universities in 25 cities across the country.

Now, Dr. Harris serves as spokesperson for the BSA’s new STEM-NOVA Award program. Designed to encourage participation and increase interest in STEM subjects, the program offers relevant and fun award- and patch-earning activities to Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Varsity Scouts, and Venturers.

So why is the BSA calling so much attention to these subjects? I’ll let STEM-NOVA’s national spokesman explain it himself.

SCOUTING: You’ve been described as a “former tinkerer.” Would you explain what that means? 

DR. BERNARD A. HARRIS JR.: That was from a PC commercial that I did a few years ago. It was for Microsoft. I guess it’s a reference to, as a kid, tinkering with toys. One of the things my mom remembers is the first time I took her clock apart to see what it was like on the inside. I think a number of kids have done that.

SCOUTING: Were you able to get it back together?

B.H.: [Laughs] No, no. I was 6 years old! She’d always have to watch the toys after Christmas because I had to figure out how they worked.

SCOUTING: You did get interested in STEM topics at an early age. How did that happen?

B.H.: My mom, who was an elementary school teacher, understood the value of an education for her kids and for her family. And I got interested from some of my teachers. I had a middle-school chemistry teacher who also taught avionics on the side. I joined the Rocket Club, and we built rockets and flying saucers. Then there were mentors like our African-American family physician in San Antonio, who took me under his wing and showed me what medicine is all about.

SCOUTING: What do you think are the main obstacles now to kids getting involved in STEM like you did?

B.H.: At the moment, it’s the way our school systems work. I think that we’ve kind of lost our way in terms of emphasizing how important these fields are. We’re just now realizing what the long-term impact will be if our kids don’t go into these STEM-related fields, for our workforce and for our ability to compete with the rest of the world.

SCOUTING: What happened?

B.H.: When kids take biology and chemistry, or mathematics, they feel like they’re being forced into those courses. And then we layer required tests on top of that. It just takes the fun out of education. Another layer, too, is how many teachers may not have degrees in these related fields. They may be English teachers teaching science or math. The teachers I was most inspired by were those who could show passion for what they were teaching.

SCOUTING: What would help?

B.H.: I don’t think we do a good job in education of connecting the dots, conveying how STEM subjects relate to real life. It’s been proven that if we do more of the interactive, hands-on kinds of things, kids can acquire this knowledge, retain it, and be able to use it.

SCOUTING: That sounds like the kind of experiences the BSA intends to encourage with its STEM-NOVA program.

B.H.: We created [this program] to use the same model that the Boy Scouts have been effectively using through the years: badges and awards to encourage young people to take an interest. There are incentives for them to do it, activities in place to do it, and a curriculum for them to do it. Programs were disseminated this spring to all the councils to encourage young people to go after these awards.

SCOUTING: What’s cool about STEM?

B.H.: I think it’s all cool! What turned me on as a kid was watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon. I recognized the innovation, the advances in technology that it took to get there. I read books and watched television to learn about what life would be like out there, and I realized that the only way to achieve these milestones is through that type of innovation and technology.

SCOUTING: What do you say to kids who tell you, “I’m just not good at math” or “I’m a right-brain thinker”?

B.H.: I say that one of the things you have to do is assess your capabilities. If math is not your forte, then that’s OK. But there is some level of mathematics that you must learn to navigate in this world. Many times people don’t realize when they use their STEM skills.

SCOUTING: Such as? 

B.H.: This interview, for example. We’ve got a photographer here using a digital camera. You’ve got a digital recorder that was developed by an engineer. This is part of connecting the dots.

SCOUTING: The BSA’s mission, to give youth the skills to become “Prepared. For Life,” is designed, in part, to train tomorrow’s leaders. Why are STEM skills important to this mission?

B.H.: For viability, individual survival, individual prosperity, to move our community forward, and to keep our nation strong.

SCOUTING: How will an emphasis on STEM accomplish all those things?

B.H.: Throughout the 21st century, technology will drive everything. We’re getting into the realm of pure science fiction now, where we may have cars that don’t need roads and you could easily travel to the moon—perhaps even live on the moon and travel to Mars. Your imagination could go wild on the technological innovations.

SCOUTING: You speak in schools across the country. What do you tell kids?

B.H.: I want them to realize who they really are. We all go through life [forgetting] that we are beings with infinite possibilities. We have certain skills that are uniquely our talents, but we’re also born with the ability to acquire talents. That’s what education is all about. That’s what Scouting is all about.

The other thing that I remind young folks is that they were born for a reason. There is a reason that all of us are put on this planet. And that is to do something, or perhaps some things. If you look at Steve Jobs—the impact that one individual had on a nation, on a world—it underscores how powerful we are individually.

SCOUTING: Why do so few students seem to be pursuing STEM?

B.H.: Again, it’s the way they’re being taught. And in many of our communities, particularly underserved communities, it has to do with exposure and experience. They’re not being exposed to people who do things in these fields. I’ll just point to the African-American community. When our kids look at television, the people who look like them are doing great things as musicians, or rappers, or athletes. They don’t see the Bernard Harrises or the other African-American scientists and engineers out there.

SCOUTING: Who are some of those scientists and engineers?

B.H.: I think the kids ought not to look for iconic role models, but to the neighbor next door who’s an engineer at Exxon-Mobil, the professor at the University of Houston or UT Southwestern, or the biology or chemistry teacher in their school who can show them what these subjects are about. People I call the “real heroes.”

SCOUTING: How do you recommend they find those people, if they don’t find them in school?

B.H.: We have a program called the Dream Tour. We travel all across this nation—in fact, we also went to Africa—to get the kids excited about a STEM education. We bring in these rock stars of STEM, young scientists, engineers, and technologists, and they tell their stories. You want to know how to change where we’re going? You change it by raising awareness, and that’s what we’re doing.

SCOUTING: What about the kids who don’t want to be identified with the “geeks” because it’s not “cool”?

B.H.: [Laughs] The geeks? The geeks rule the world! Every major technology company is headed by a geek. I say, jokingly, to kids in our summer science camps, “I know that in your class you may be teased about being smart. You like math, you like science. But the next time someone calls you out for being smart, you look them straight in the eyes and tell them that, one day, they will be working for you!”

SCOUTING: You mentioned the Dream Tour. Tell us about your science camps.

B.H.: The Bernard Harris Summer Science Camps are for middle school students. They’re two-week residential programs, held in July and August. They’re free to the kids, thanks to the support we get from Exxon-Mobil, so we’re able to target economically disadvantaged youth.

We try to match the demographics of the area. In inner-city Houston, we may have more African-Americans. But if we’re down in the valley in Texas, that program is almost 100 percent Hispanic. And if we’re in Oklahoma, it’s mostly American Indians. We try to mix it up.

SCOUTING: Communities that need this sort of training.

B.H.: Well, they’re our future. If you look at the demographics of this country, you realize we are no longer a country that has a majority. We are a country of minorities. And if we don’t figure out a way to increase the educational process of African-American and Hispanic kids, especially, then this country is going to lose in the long run. So it’s in the interest of us all.

SCOUTING: What do the kids do when they go to camp?

B.H.: They’re team-taught by professors and secondary educators. Each university has its own theme. Students are given a core problem like clean energy, aerospace, or geology. We ask the instructors to make it interactive, hands-on.

SCOUTING: Not every kid will walk in outer space. How can adults get kids pumped up about studying these STEM subjects?

B.H.: It’s important to get to know young people and find ways that they can get to know themselves. When the BSA takes a young man out on an excursion or requires him to do certain things to get a merit badge, you get to know these kids. And they get to know themselves. That’s the best place to start directing them into fields where they’ll want to go.

SCOUTING: Where can our adults find resources to help the kids get involved?

B.H.: I hate to sound self-serving, but they can go to our Web site [] to find links to our programs and links to other Web sites for parents, teachers, and students. And if you type “STEM” into Google, there are plenty of these programs available.

SCOUTING: What will it take to achieve this goal?

B.H.: Well, it’s going to take a concerted effort on the part of everyone who wants to make a difference. Every speech I give, I issue a call to action. If all of us do one thing, no matter how small, we can make a difference. If you’re an engineer and all you do is go to an elementary school and tell kids what you do, I think that 20 years from now, 100 years from now, this will be an entirely different world.

SCOUTING: It goes back to your “real heroes” concept.

B.H.: Again, this sounds like a commercial for Scouting, but that’s what this organization is all about—to lay a foundation to bring these heroes into the fray to influence, in a positive way, young people’s lives.

SCOUTING: Do you think Scout leaders have to be familiar with STEM topics to get kids motivated?

B.H.: I don’t think so, but it certainly helps. And I’m pretty sure that you’ve got them. But part of this STEM-NOVA program will highlight that fact. Leaders can take advantage of their own skill sets; I bet a number of them already have.

SCOUTING: What’s the most important thing an adult can do to raise awareness of the program?

B.H.: I think each council, each leader, probably will have their own methods of getting the word out among Scouts and their families—that it exists, that it’s a priority, that it’s something not only in the interest of the Boy Scouts of America but also in the national interest. Moving our kids forward, that’s the No. 1 thing.

Read more of our conversation with Dr. Harris.

John R. Clark is Scouting magazine’s Managing Editor.

To read more about the BSA’s STEM-NOVA Award Program, click here.

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