Rocket Man Space Education Made Paramount

by Nathan Oravec


It’s Tuesday afternoon, January 28, 2003. Balmy at thirty-four degrees outdoors, compared to the cold snap that has previously chilled the area. Inside the auditorium at Paramount Elementary School, however, the warm glow of excitement radiates like a slow star burn, a brilliant blue and white luminescent miracle of the universe and the first awe-inspiring slide projected during the assembly currently in progress.

The wall-to-wall crowd is primed; sitting cross-legged and quieted with a simple gesture of two raised fingers, nervous energy nonetheless recognized by the intermittent chatter and smiles of children - elementary school students, 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades - wafting over the audience like solar winds. The keynote speaker today, Brian Ewenson, requests two volunteers and over 100 hands shoot skyward in unison. When two are chosen, a uniform groan of rejection dominoes throughout the room.

Following the demonstration, in which the two space cadets, with tennis and basketballs respectively, demonstrate the relative distance between the earth and the moon - and after each returns to his and her seat in the crowd - Ewenson explains a primary goal of his visit to the school. “What I really want to talk about,” he says, “are dreams, hopes and things you want to do when you grow up.” When posed the question, a flurry of possibilities return from the kids - teacher, soccer player, Olympian, doctor...

The slides advance to a photo, late 70s, of a family at the Kennedy Space Center. Ewenson’s laser-pointer directs the group’s attention to one of two “rug rats” in the picture. It is him as a child. The photo was the catalyst of his fascination with space and space travel.

Fast-forward some twenty odd years - and to a second slide: Ewenson, as an adult, standing at the foot of the Colombia Space Shuttle. The message is clear: Dreams can come true. Any child present can do, can be, anything they wish - if they want it badly enough, and if they put their minds to it.

This is, perhaps, the core message of Ewenson’s presentation. As an aerospace educator for Space Day, an international aerospace education program based out of Washington, DC, it is one that he shares with nearly 100 schools annually across Canada and the United States.

Spanning eleven different countries via the support of 75 partners running the gamut from government contractors and not-for-profits such as school districts and museums, and involving approximately 4.5 million children per year, the Space Day program, Ewenson explains, is comprised of three different components.

The first, Signatures In Space, is an initiative designed “to get kids excited about space,” through which the John Hancocks of participating school students are actually launched into orbit. “We fly about 500 student signatures into space each fall,” says Ewenson.

The second component, known as Design Challenges, involves three projects in which students, utilizing their math and science skills, “will solve problems faced by astronauts in space.” For Space Day 2003... Celebrating the Future of Flight, all Challenges focus on future aviation. Fly to the Future asks students to deign an aircraft of tomorrow; Planetary Explorers will design a spacecraft with the ability to operate on our planet as well as another; and students choosing Watt Power! can dream up a spacecraft that is powered by a renewable energy source.

The third component, and also the program’s culmination, is Space Day itself. Held the first Thursday in May each year, here, winning Design Challenge teams are announced, and subsequently invited to the National Air and Space Museum in DC. “There they’ll meet people like John Glenn, Sally Ride and other luminaries in the field,” says Ewenson.

Ewenson’s presentation at Paramount Elementary served as the kick-off for the school’s Space Day countdown. According to Teresa Schoeck, parent, a team of twelve students, chosen via previously determined areas of interest, have been working diligently on their Design Challenge of choice, Fly to the Future. Meeting weekly for an hour and a half, under the guidance of school fathers - Billy Strauss and Marty Wills - they have done extensive research, even making a preliminary visit to the Air and Space Museum. Additionally, the school has taken secondary steps by creating a sub-theme, History of Hagerstown Flight, to enlighten students about the area’s vast background in taking to the skies. “A lot of the kids don’t know the history of, say, Fairchild, that a lot of [the parents] grew up with,” says Schoeck. Hagerstown Aircraft Services, Inc., has generously donated photos and materials to this end.

April, she says, will be Paramount’s Space Month. Currently in its planning stages, it is hoped that additional speakers, like Ewenson, and activities will lead up to Space Day on May 1.

Excitement is in the air - and in the stars.

As an aerospace educator, school involvement and student enthusiasm is Ewenson’s goal. “I design and develop presentations to enthuse, infuse and amuse students with the space program,” he says. “Each 90 minute presentation - the time it takes the shuttle to orbit the earth once - will lead students through the entire process - from the launch to the landing - and educate on what living and working in space is like.”

“The whole goal,” he continues, “is to create a pipeline in the US in getting children and youth involved in math, science and technology.” Space, he explains, is the motivator to hopefully inspire engineers, scientists, and technicians of the future.

“The main issue is that, although Canada and the US are first world countries, we’re still finishing 28th and 29th in the world as far as math skills are concerned. And since 9/11, immigration is not the way to solve this problem. Raising home-grown kids [with these skills] is.”

As an educator, Ewenson has designed and flown experiments on board five shuttle missions, and has witnessed as many launches.

The boy in the slide at the Kennedy Space Center, and later, at the foot of the Colombia shuttle where, currently, an experiment of his own making is along for the ride, has achieved his dream. Today he shares it with others in hopes that they too will someday achieve theirs.

“The kids get extremely excited by space,” he says. “What some of them don’t realize is that we’re currently on our 113th shuttle mission. A lot of these kids have grown up with sci-fi, but don’t know that there are people today who are actually living in space.”

“Citizens of the Universe” as he calls them; A minimum of three individuals, at any point during this generation’s lifetime, that will be living on a space station, hovering millions of miles above earth. It’s an impressive concept.

“Citizens of the Universe.” A title, perhaps, not inappropriate for Ewenson’s young audience. After all, if they take away anything from the day’s assembly, it is this: Reach for the stars, and one day, you will get them.

For more information on Space Day 2003, visit www.spaceday.org.