CHICAGO | More than 3,000 students, including some from Northwest Indiana classrooms, mingled Friday with Museum of Science and Industry scholars and officials who offered insight into growing fields in science.
Former NASA astronaut Jerry Ross, 65, a Crown Point native, led discussions with youth from throughout the Chicago area at the premier MSI event, "Science Works: Cool Jobs, Hot Careers." The program is designed to encourage kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.
"This event is about celebrating how science is awesome," said Rabiah Mayas, a director of sciences and integrated strategies at the MSI Center for the Advancement of Earth Science Education. "We're really excited about demystifying what a science job looks like."
To foster that interest, the museum invited Ross to speak about his experiences growing up during the the 1960s "space race," and his enduring fascination with the space program, which he said began in fourth grade, after the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik I.
"I decided in the fourth grade that I was going to go to Purdue and I was going to become an engineer, and I was going to become involved in our country's space program," Ross said.
"Everything I did academically through junior high and high school (was for) ... the right credentials to successfully apply to Purdue's engineering school. All the money I made bailing hay and those things during the summer and other times went to a special bank account to start saving for my education."
Because of his early love of science, Ross continually strives to reach out to and inspire young people.
"Because at such an early age, I had such a direction in my life, I decided what I was to go do, and I was able to pursue it," Ross said.
"I had other friends in my life that did not have that direction, and they sort of drifted around and maybe didn't have as fulfilling a life as they could have. That's why I've tried to focus on talking to students during my entire astronaut career."
Among the students in attendance was Ameer Rifai, from Avicenna Academy in Crown Point, who recently participated in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program and proposed an experiment on the effects of microgravity on amphibian eggs.
Rifiai said the opportunity to hear and see Ross was "a special day."
Rifai's classmate Rehan Uribe also was impressed with the presentation. "It was awesome, especially since he is a seven-flight veteran," Uribe said. "I like science a lot, so it was pretty cool to see him."
While Rifai, Uribe and many other students at Friday's event seemed to appreciate the sciences, the MSI's Mayas still expressed some concerns.
"A lot of kids are really excited about science at a young age, and somehow along the way they start to lose interest," Mayas said.
"We are about making sure people stay interested in the sciences and understand how important science is to everyday life."