At Madison Middle School in West Seattle, the stage is literally set tonight for a show tomorrow morning that will rock the cafeteria/auditorium space and the hundreds of students who will fill it. That’s where we caught up this afternoon with Dr. Bernard Harris (bio), a former astronaut who made history during one of his two space flights as the first African-American to walk in space. (What you see on stage to the right in the photo is one of two shuttle seats that also have been in space, and now are used as props during his presentation.) Madison is the first stop on this year’s DREAM Tour, meant to get students jazzed about math and science, and in no small part their practical applications – even to the level of discussing how those lines of work can become lucrative.
Based in Houston, Dr. Harris himself is an internist as well as a former astronaut, and now runs a venture-capital firm, Vesalius Ventures (named after legendary anatomist Andreas Vesalius) focused on telemedicine, as well as the Harris Foundation, to focus on the cause of advancing math-science education. Tomorrow morning’s presentation will include not just a speech by Dr. Harris but videos, with young scientists telling their stories, and even an audio/video surround-sound experience of a shuttle launch. He hopes the kids will leave “fired up” – and when they take their enthusiasm home, or to their friends’ houses, here’s what he hopes will happen:
But first, he says, it’s a matter of making it relevant: “I always ask them, do you enjoy cell phones, rap music, video games? They all exist because scientists or engineers developed the technology. We try to bring it down to earth, relate it to real life.” And the message: “If you want to have a career where you can take care of yourself and your family — math and science can be the key.” Expanding that realization is an urgent job, he adds, given how far behind our country is in producing new workers to join fields (medicine, engineering, and more) where those skills are vital.
He is doing everything he can to help make that happen, involved in an effort that provides scholarships, as well as in other core efforts from his Harris Foundation, such as Summer Science Camps. He revealed in our chat this afternoon that they’ll be announcing next Monday that they’re expanding to 30 locations nationwide this year. (The closest one is at Oregon State University.) But first, he was speaking at an education-themed event in downtown Seattle tonight; after he appears at Madison tomorrow, it’s on to Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis later this year – and students interested in staying involved with the project, he says, will find new features on its website soon.