Young Minds Take Flight In Summer Science Camp At NJIT

Danny Okoli, Muhammed Abdul Azeez and Nuri Raheem are participating in the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Camp.

The girls miss their cell phones and the boys miss their mothers.

That’s because they are in a sleepover camp at NJIT. The 36 middle-school students don’t have a lot of time to dwell on the selfies and Instagram posts they are missing -- the camp disallows cellphones. Instead, they are dwelling on learning as much as they can.

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp is introducing them to the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It’s the 10th year that NJIT has hosted the camp, the theme of which is “Engineering Your Place in Space.”

For two weeks, the students attend classes, do hands-on projects and take field trips. They are taught by high school teachers, university faculty and teacher assistants. The free camp, which serves underrepresented students, is funded by the ExxonMobil Foundation and the Harris Foundation,

The students are staying in an NJIT dorm, giving them an early sense of what it’s like to live on a college campus. They come from towns in Essex, Union, Passaic, Hudson and Bergen counties, all within 10 miles of NJIT, so they aren’t far from home. Half of them are girls and half boys, a ratio that delighted NJIT President Joel Bloom, who welcomed the students to campus last week.

“Half of you are young women and that’s great,” said Bloom. “We need young women as well as men to study and work in STEM fields. Engineers solve problems and we need a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in engineering if we are to solve complex problems.”

Bernard Harris, the founder of the Harris Foundation and the first African-American astronaut to walk in space, also visited the camp to speak to the students. When he was 13-years-old, he said, he watched transfixed as American astronauts landed on the moon. He knew then what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.  

“I ran up to mother and said, ‘Mom, I know what I want to do when I grew up. I want to be an astronaut.’”

To which his mother replied, “Great. You can do anything you want to do in life.” Almost three decades later, during a mission on the Shuttle Discovery in 1995, Harris realized his dream when he became the first African-American to walk in space. 

He encouraged the students to study STEM and to master technology, which he said infuses all aspects of daily life. 

“This is a camp for geeks and smart kids,” added Harris. “And if anyone ever teases you about being smart, stare them down and tell them ‘one day you will work for me.’”

The camp is hard to get into -- campers must submit school transcripts and letters of recommendations from teachers as well as write an essay explaining why they want to attend. They must also interview with an official from the Center for Pre-College Programs at NJIT, which organizes the camp. Therefore, those selected for the camp tend to be precociously smart.

Take, for instance, Muhammed Abdul Azeez, who in the fall will be a sixth grader in the Dr. Lena Edwards Academic Charter School in Jersey City. Articulate, thoughtful and poised, a straight-A student, Muhammed intends to one day work as a robotics engineer. He’s also interested in biomedical engineering inasmuch as he’d like to design synthetic body parts. Alternative energy is also one of his interests and he noted that ExxonMobil has research labs to develop clean energy. He also admires Bernard Harris and sees him as a role model.

“As one of the first African-American astronauts, and the first to walk in space, he must have inspired many young people to become astronauts,” said Muhammed. “I might like to be an astronaut also.”  

Nuri Raheem, another camper, will be a seventh grader in September at the North Star Academy in Newark. She loves math and science and her dream is to graduate from college and  become a chemical engineer.  And though she misses her cell phone and her favorite television shows, she is having a good time at NJIT, making friends in her dorm and learning in her classes. 

“This camp is helping me to develop as a student and it will bring me a step closer to reaching my goal of becoming a chemical engineer,” said Nuri. “Chemical engineers invent drugs that help people who have diseases. They improve the world.”

Danny Okoli will be a sixth grader in the fall at the First Avenue School in Newark.  He, too, loves math and science and wants to become either an astronaut or an engineer. But first, after high school he hopes to attend Harvard. He excels in school and his teachers recommended him highly to the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Camp. He’s soft-spoken and mature beyond his years and said his goal is to become a successful engineer or astronaut so that he can help not only himself but also his parents.

“My parents have always encouraged me in school and supported me in everything I do,” he said. “So when I have a good job I want to give back to my parents by supporting them.”  

By Robert Florida (