Former astronaut encourages Northern Virginia students to study STEM

This story first appeared in The Loudon Times-Mirror.

Three-time NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus spoke to thousands of Northern Virginia students this weekend to promote interest in STEM careers and to encourage young people to pursue their dreams, no matter how big they are.

WashingtonExec’s 2016 K-12 STEM Symposium at the Nysmith School for the Gifted in Herndon drew about 2,500 students from across the region. The youngsters got a hands-on look at 3-D printers, connected cars, flight simulators, drones, robotics and more. The children also got to speak with an array STEM professionals about career paths.

“I had no idea if I could be an astronaut or not,” said Magnus, describing her childhood in a small Midwest town to the crowd. “It’s easy to doubt your self. Don’t. You can do anything. If you have a dream, you have to go for it.”

The former astronaut, now executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), said she was a child with a lot of questions.

“I drove my parents crazy because I was always asking, ‘Why?’” Magnus said.

Her constant curiosity drove Magnus to science. By the time she was in middle school, Magnus knew she wanted to be an astronaut.

When she was in high school, Magnus saw NASA send the first woman into space and her dream felt a little more tangible.

After receiving a degree in physics and electrical engineering from Missouri University of Science and Technology, Magnus engineered stealth aircraft design at the firm McDonnell Douglas.

Once she got a PhD in material science and engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Magnus started working for NASA.

“I got to continually learn new things at NASA,” said Magnus. “I never felt like I left schools.”

After 26 years of study and hard work, Magnus’ dream finally came true. She flew her first space mission in 2002.

Magnus showed the students a video highlight reel of her time in space to show the payoff of her decades-long journey to get to space.

“If you have a dream, pursue it,” she urged the young STEM enthusiasts. “It takes hard work, but if you’re passionate about it, it doesn’t ever really feel like work.”

The STEM symposium is one of dozens of regional, state and national efforts to encourage students to consider careers in the field.

Earlier this month the Virginia General Assembly approved House Bill 831, which calls for the Board of Education to include computer science in Standards of Learning (SOL) testing.

“The growing demand in the job market for skilled workers is really driving the need to give our students more exposure to computer science, computational thinking, and computer coding,” Del. Thomas “Tag” Greason (R-32nd), the bill’s sponsor, told the Times-Mirror. “By incorporating these critical areas into existing SOL curriculum, I believe we will better prepare a broader subset of our students for the 21st century workforce and provide additional pathways for high-demand careers.”