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The view from above: Impacting Hispanic communities in STEM

Story by Andrea Tejada, Joan Ballista, and Isabella Lima

Although NASA is a familiar name to us all, there are many things about it that can be unclear. While we may know that NASA is constantly working on many exciting projects in the fields of STEM, we may not know exactly what it is they are working on. How are all of these projects getting done, and who are the individuals that are doing all of this exciting science?

These questions were successfully addressed in an exciting visit to an Open House in NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. On Saturday, October 21, our Museum’s Education and Engagement team, in collaboration with our community partners at El Futuro and El Centro Hispano, facilitated a two-day field trip to this research center for 15 Hispanic families. The NASA Langley Research Center opened its doors to the public for the first time in seven years to over 40,000 visitors, and provided opportunities for guests to attend various STEM demonstrations and participate in different hands on activities and seminars.

With the creation of this unique experience, we fulfill our goal to build relationships, engage, and attract a diverse group of Hispanic families to STEM through learning opportunities that stoke interest and provide connections to NASA’s work and mission. This incredible opportunity was generously funded by the Sparking Interest in STEM Among Hispanic Learners Nationwide Through Meaningful Connections to NASA Explorations and Discoveries Award through the NASA Teams Engaging Affiliated Museums and Informal Institutions program (NASA Teams II), along with other private donors who made this life-changing trip possible.

On Saturday morning we met with the families at the Museum and drove together in a charter bus. When we arrived at the research facility, we were privileged to be guided by Marilé Colón Robles, a project advisor and a close friend to the Museum of Life and Science. Through her hard work, our families were able to see NASA through a different lens and speak to amazing scientists. Among those scientists were seven Hispanic professionals who work on various important projects at the Research Center. They shared their own stories, experiences and answered the many questions of our curious aspiring scientists.

Additionally, our group toured inside a high-speed wind tunnel used for researching material limits, an inflatable moon habitat built for astronauts to live in while exploring places like the moon and Mars, met pilots, and saw a gigantic robotic arm among other amazing things. Our last stop was the visit to the historic aircraft hangar, where we were able to learn more about the future of flight, talked with Hispanic scientists, and stood under the Boeing 777, one of the NASA’s giant research aircraft.

We were fortunate enough to meet Lisa Ziehmann, the Acting Director of NASA Langley Research Center, who met with the families and eagerly engaged with the children in our group to help foster their sense of wonder about space. She expressed her delight and support at this initiative, “This was an absolute pleasure and a huge highlight of the day for me! I’m thrilled to hear the families had a wonderful time, and I hope we inspired a few to pursue a career in STEM and at NASA.”

On Sunday morning, we took a short trip to Buckroe Beach and Park where we played in the sand and had lunch before returning home to Durham. While there, we were able to speak to the families and hear more about their experiences exploring NASA Langley.

“This trip meant so much to my kids,” said mother of two Daisy Zelaya. “My son told me ‘Mom, everything we saw is going to be so helpful to me in school, for science.’ I was surprised at this trip; I had no idea there was a Research Center like this in Virginia. This has been really nice.”

When asked what her favorite part of the trip was, third-grader Sarha responded, “Everything! But I really liked learning about the planets. I had some questions about the big red spot on Jupiter and it was cool to learn more about that.”

We are thrilled to have experienced part of the mission of the Hispanic Employee Advisory Committee (HEAC), which is to influence and promote awareness of challenges Hispanics face in STEM. Being able to hear from some of those scientists was incredibly valuable in allowing Hispanic children to see themselves as future scientists, astronauts, or engineers. The fields of STEM have historically felt exclusive to certain groups of people, but by facilitating educational opportunities like this one and helping empower young people to feel a personal connection to STEM, we are hoping to break down some of those barriers. This was truly a transformative experience for the families.