BTN LiveBIG: Purdue Space Day aims to inspire astronauts of tomorrow

BTN LiveBIG: Purdue Space Day aims to inspire astronauts of tomorrow

Purdue_SpaceDay4Every fall, hundreds of elementary and middle school students flock to West Lafayette, Ind., for a fun-filled day of launching water rockets, experimenting with mini Mars rovers and learning about what lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Purdue Space Day (PSD) originated in November 1996. At that event, Boilermaker alumnus astronauts Greg Harbaugh and Don Williams spoke to the approximately 150 students in attendance in an effort to spread their love for space exploration to the next generation.

Twenty years later, the goal is the same, but the event has lifted off to another level. Last year more than 250 student volunteers welcomed a crowd of 650 young participants. The second man to set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, served as the day’s honorary astronaut and personally led the youth in a “Welcome to Mars” activity to boost interest in exploration of the Red Planet.

Aldrin at last year's Purdue Space Day

Aldrin at last year’s Purdue Space Day

For the third- through eighth-graders who attend Space Day, it’s an educational opportunity they can’t find anywhere else.

“A lot of area schools may not have the resources to do much education in the space industry. We hope to provide that,” said Anna Bowers, the coordinator of Purdue Space Day. “It’s a free event, so we’re trying to remove some barriers. As long as they can come to us on the event day, we’re going to be able to provide them with things to get them excited. And then hopefully they will continue learning about space.”

The kids are split up into three different age groups for the day and then get to participate in various activities pertaining to space and the STEM fields. Student organizations often help prepare the educational activities, which include launching water rockets, building Mars rovers out of paper cups and marshmallows, designing rocket engines and dropping eggs in parachutes as if they were astronauts descending back to Earth.

“We have seven new activities that we are going to do this year,” Bowers said. “I think it’s the largest amount of new activities that we’ve ever done. We try to bring in all aspects of education, so they are learning something but having a great time while doing that.”

Space Day and the awesome experience it provides for area youth wouldn’t be possible without Purdue students. A few hundred student volunteers now serve as chaperones and help carry out the day’s activities.

Purdue_SpaceDayAs the coordinator of PSD, Bowers oversees an executive board of eight students who plan the event throughout the year, develop the science projects and contact an astronaut to speak at the event. Brachston Grubbs, a rising senior and PSD’s director of groups, said working on the executive board has been a tremendous experience.

“Coming onto the executive board, I really wanted to increase outreach throughout the year, learn how to get more schools involved and work with more kids,” Grubbs said. “It’s taught me a lot about how to deal with people, how to interact with kids and how to handle finances. I’ve learned so much from it. It’s been absolutely amazing.”

“It’s incredible to see what these students are able to do on top of their coursework,” Bowers added. “Many of them are engineers; a couple of them are also in technology and in the sciences. They’re all in STEM fields, and I just cannot imagine that — on top of all their duties with class and extracurriculars — they are able to put this together. It amazes me every single time.”

By Jason Dorow

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