Students meet a star in the STEM field

NASA Space Shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly speaks to students at Powhatan School in Boyce on Tuesday afternoon in Clarke County. Rich Cooley/Daily

BOYCE – When children say they want to be an astronaut when they grow up, it’s not often they get the chance to learn about that particular path on career day.

But students at Powhatan School in Clarke County learned about the future of stellar opportunities in STEM fields when retired astronaut Mark Kelly spoke at an assembly there on Tuesday afternoon.

Kelly began his career at NASA in 1996 and made four trips to the International Space Station as either a pilot or commander before retiring in 2011. His twin brother, Scott Kelly, is currently halfway through his yearlong mission at the space station, after which the twins will be examined to observe the biological effects of staying in space.

At the school-wide assembly, Kelly told the students what it was like to blast off from a launch pad at 17,500 mph and to see the sun rise from orbit around Earth. He described some marvels of present and future space exploration, telling the students that any one of them could be the first astronaut to walk on Mars in the future.

“You have a better chance of walking on planet Mars than I do right now, so think about that,” he said, speaking to a girl in the front row. “You could walk on Mars one day.”

Wyatt Campbell, 5, of Winchester, looks over the shoulder of astronaut Mark Kelly as he autographs one of several children's books he purchased during Kelly's appearance on Tuesday at Powhatan School in Boyce. Rich Cooley/Daily

Not only did he tease students with the notion of being able to walk on moons and planets, he also discussed the possibility of fast and thrilling international travel via rockets.

“But for that to happen, I need some things from you – from all of you,” he said. “If one day you want to be taking the rocket ship over to England, we need really smart scientists and engineers and people that are good with technology and math.”

Powhatan’s Director of the Lower School Director Kevin Hessberg said the space portions of science curricula were bumped earlier in the year so that students could show their curiosity by asking prepared questions about life in space.

After the assembly, Kelly signed around 90 copies of his children’s books “Mousetronaut” and “Astrotwins – Project Blastoff” for Powhatan students in the school library. Hessberg said that the student body was more than prepared and very excited for the visit – lower school art classes had prepared a galactic collage to give to Kelly.

“These kids were thrilled; there was a ton of playground chatter, a lot of talk,” Hessberg said. “We’ve been reading his books in the library … they just couldn’t have been any more pumped to see him.”

Students at Powhatan School in Boyce listen as astronaut Mark Kelly speaks during his appearance on Tuesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Later on Tuesday evening, Kelly planned to speak again at a pledge dinner for Powhatan School’s Curiosity Ignited Capital Campaign to raise $1.395 million dollars for expanding STEM education within the school.

Development Director Amy Sluss said that the campaign money will go toward enlarging current science labs, creating a greenhouse and MakerSpace for hands-on learning and using around 47 acres of land on campus for what Sluss calls “outdoor classrooms without walls” that can be used to teach environmental science in unique habitats.

She noted that the capital campaign efforts will foster continued interest in fields that students can lose interest in and opt out of later on in their education.

“What we’re trying to do is take those fields and make sure the kids are having hands-on experimental learning,” she said.

Sluss said that before Kelly’s visit, the school had reached about half its goal and was hoping to raise the full amount by December 2016. According to Susan Scarborough, head of school, some secured funds have already been allocated for hiring a faculty science teacher for specialized instruction at the lower grade levels, providing iPads and Chromebooks for use in younger classrooms and breaking ground on the outdoor Gathering Pavilion learning facility.

NASA Space Shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly speaks to students at Powhatan School in Boyce on Tuesday afternoon in Clarke County. Rich Cooley/Daily

Hessberg said that the campaign will create cross-curricular learning opportunities in all grade levels, building familiarity with vital STEM principles even at the pre-K level.

“We’re really trying to build excitement in everybody, and we’re tying this (in) not just to (show) how great it is to have an astronaut, we’re tying this to how neat is it to be able to take a field like math and see what someone does with it,” he said.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com