At only 28 years old, Kenneth Harris II has a very clear goal in mind: to have a positive impact on the next generation. In November of 2020, he was elected to the Prince George’s County Board of Education, serving the Maryland school district in which he grew up. Through the opportunity, he will be able to help create policies and curriculum that affect more that 134,000 students. For Harris, a senior project engineer with The Aerospace Corporation who was recognized by Forbes as one of the youngest and most impactful people in the field of science today, it’s a significant opportunity to give to those students what he had: a role model.
“My love for the space industry came from my dad. He also was an engineer who was working with NASA since I can remember,” Harris notes. And even though he was able to see what his father was doing, attending launches and other NASA events, the special nature of his father’s work and his example of leadership and strong work ethic didn’t click until Harris was about 15. It was then that he took a job as a janitor at his high school to make money. “It was a humbling experience,” he recalls. “It was hard work. And it made me step back and think about the opportunities I had that I should appreciate more.”
Soon he refocused himself and began a lifelong love of science and math and his own affiliation with NASA, completing internships with a specific emphasis on the development of satellites. “People think of satellites as mechanical bodies orbiting around the Earth. They think of the functionality. But it’s so much bigger than just communications and connecting people. Satellites can save lives. They can help us understand the universe and our home world,” says Harris, who has worked as a mechanical and electrical engineer on NASA projects like the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission Satellite (MMS), the Global Precipitation Measurement Satellite (GPM) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
While pursuing those professional opportunities, he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and then his master’s degree in Engineering Management from Johns Hopkins University Engineering for Professionals. His resume now includes positions with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a number of impressive corporations. But no matter what he does, he always comes back to the idea that his mission is to show younger people how their passions can have real-life applications.
“I didn’t realize what I had until I was much older. I had a constant role mode,” says Harris, who recently began a doctoral program in engineering at The George Washington University and also hosts two YouTube science shows for Seeker Media, “Elements” and “Countdown to Launch.” “Our students need to see their future in someone else. That’s why I’ve jumped at the opportunity to be seen as African American in the field who has worked for NASA. I want to make sure that the individuals who are coming after me see someone who looks like them go this far. My goal is to go out there and impact just one. That drives me every day.”