NASA Awareness Week in Charlotte, N.C., got off to an exciting start March 2 at the city's convention center where almost 2,000 middle school students from across the state arrived for Education Day.
The mission for the day was to inspire the teens to think ahead and prepare for college. To get them motivated, representatives from about a dozen colleges and universities were on hand to pass out materials and explain the benefits of a continuing education.
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NASA astronaut Lee Morin speaks to students at Education Day. Morin discussed his mission on space shuttle Atlantis and his work on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
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Willis Jenkins, education program executive at NASA HQ, gets the crowd of 2,000 middle school students pumped for Education Day. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
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Students surrounded the NASA booths at Education Day to learn how astronauts live and work in space. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
It was NASA's mission to inspire the students to "dream big" and consider majoring in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).
"Today I come to you to say that for this country to become successful, it's important that each and every one of you consider majoring in science, technology, engineering and math," said Roger Hathaway, education director at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
The event was a part of the annual Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association's (CIAA) basketball tournament, which attracts nearly 200,000 people. CIAA is one of America's oldest athletic conferences for 13 historic black colleges and universities from Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Since the first NASA-sponsored Education Day in 2010, the event has doubled in size, drawing twice as many students from around the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.
West Rowan Middle School counselor Marian Thompson said she tried to attend last year but received the information too late to register. This year she registered early and brought 14 students – all members of a newly formed "I'm Going to College" group. Education Day was the group's first outing and Thompson said the one-hour drive from Salisbury, N.C., was well worth it.
"I'm so glad we were able to do this," she said. "We are all just too excited. When students are exposed to events such as this, it shows them there are opportunities, and they also learn that people want to see them succeed."
Giving them an example of success was NASA astronaut Lee Morin who flew as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Atlantis as part of mission STS-110 in 2002. Morin, who spent 250 hours in space helping build the International Space Station, encouraged students to pursue a STEM education, because it's those subjects "that allow you to do something like build a space station one day."
"The International Space Station is the largest engineering project done by a group of nations, ever," Morin told the students. "For humanity to produce the space station was a fulfillment of an idea of many thousands of people and anything that you do in your life begins with an idea, a fantasy, of what you want to achieve, and you have to do a lot of work, a lot of preparation."
Following Morin's presentation, the students met with college students and browsed NASA booths where they got to see artifacts and try on space gloves. They wanted to know about breathing in space, whether there is life on Mars and what astronauts do for food and sleep. Then, there's always the bathroom question.
One student from the Morehead STEM Academy in Charlotte said he's always wanted to be an astronaut.
"If I only had one wish, it would be to see the earth from space," he said.
Another student, also from the STEM Academy, knew so much about NASA that he was answering his friend's questions about Mars and the shuttle and how solid rocket boosters work.
"It's all just so fascinating," he said.
NASA Awareness Week continues in Charlotte through March 5. In addition to the NASA outreach efforts at the CIAA tournament, there are also a series of free NASA STEM teacher workshops, a Career Day, a special astronaut visit at Whitewater Middle School in Charlotte and a STEM Awareness Breakfast Showcase.
To see more images of Education Day, browse our Flickr gallery below: