Two hundred children and parents gathered in a packed room at Wallingford Public Library earlier this summer waiting for the chance to speak by video chat with Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer, two NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
One student asked how the two developed interest in space and becoming an astronaut.
Whitson said timing was on her side.
“When I graduated from high school, it was the first year they picked female astronauts,” she said “And I think that was what inspired me to believe that I could also become an astronaut. Luckily I had no idea how hard it would be. I kept working, kept studying, and eventually I made it.”
The library’s summer reading program was dedicated to outer space this year. The children’s department held star observation events, model planet making, and stomp rocket launchings.
Sunny Scarpa, head of children’s services, said programs like this one make the sciences seem accessible for children.
“We want to promote the love of learning. So we really hope that this program, when the kids come in and talk to these astronauts Jack and Peggy, that they’ll be able to envision themselves in the sciences,” Scarpa said. “Kids can often get discouraged when they run into trouble with science or math in school. We really want them to be inspired that it’s worth putting the effort in.”
The event is part of a nationwide NASA program called In-Flight Education Downlink.
Becky Kamas, Station Activity Manager at NASA, said that with a clear need for scientists and engineers in our society, outreach programs like this one are important because they help to pull kids into science, technology, engineering, and math -- or STEM -- early on.
“Our students now, in the very near future, are going to be our leaders,” she said. “So being able to kind of inspire and engage students in the STEM fields is very important to us.”
Events like this one also show the way Wallingford Public Library has expanded its mission past traditional library functions, according to Allison Murphy, a children’s librarian there.
“Libraries are really evolving,” she said. “Of course they’re always going to be about books -- and checking out books and checking out movies, and magazines. But the library has become a gathering place for people to come together, to learn together, to meet new people, and that’s what this whole NASA event has brought to these children.”
Averaging around nine children’s outreach programs a week this summer, the children’s department at Wallingford Library became a community center -- and the NASA event showed this. Families weren’t just introduced to Jack and Peggy the astronauts, but also to a new way of looking at their library.