University kicks-off STEM Week with former NASA astronaut

Former astronaut Dr. Cady Coleman.

WESTFIELD- Former Astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman will kick-off the 3rd Annual STEM Week at Westfield State University.

STEM Week is a statewide effort to boost the interest, awareness and ability for all learners to envision themselves in science. technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and employment opportunities, and compliment the formal instruction happening in the Commonwealth beyond STEM week.

STEM Week begins Oct. 19  but Coleman will start it with a talk Oct. 15 via a remote Zoom session.

Coleman is a former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Airforce colonel who spent a total of 180 days on the International Space Station (ISS) across two space shuttle missions. She will be speaking as a part of Pioneer Valley STEM Network’s Massachusetts STEM Week. 

Coleman served on the ISS as the lead robotics and lead science officer. She has been a big advocate for inclusion in STEM fields and is currently a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab and Global Explorer in Residence at Arizona State University. She also coached Sandra Bullock for her lead role in the 2013 film “Gravity.” 

Most recently, Coleman was involved in the process of the manned SpaceX Dragon Capsule launch in May. She also co-anchored the ABC News Live broadcast during the launch that sent two men to the ISS via a private space company for the first time. 

Jennifer Hanselman, Dean of WSU’s College of Mathematics and Sciences and Regional Manager of PVSTEM NET said that Coleman has been fighting to provide greater access to STEM fields, including advocating for greater gender equities for STEM access. 

“I view her as a wonderful advocate because she can connect with such a wide audience,” said Hanselman, “She has a brilliant mind as a robotics and science officer for NASA.”

Because of the pandemic, STEM week will be held mostly remotely this year. Hanselman said that she wanted Coleman to be a featured speaker because she thinks she is a great fit to do so remotely.

“You need a special person who can do it remotely. She is the perfect person for that. Big speakers typically don’t want that kind of format,” said Hanselman, “It just shows her efforts in inclusion and making students curious.”

During Thursday’s talk, Cady Coleman is expected to talk about how she got to where she is today and what her experiences were during her six months in space. Hanselman said there will be high school, community college, and university students in attendance in the zoom call. She said they are expecting questions from students ranging from the living conditions on the ISS to interdisciplinary science in space.

“We want the students to hang on to the interdisciplinary learning,” said Hanselman. 

Because of the limitations caused by the pandemic this year, Hanselman said that they needed to rethink how to convey STEM literacy in a way that does not need to be directly hands-on or in-person. She said that there are local K-12 schools that have STEM activities this week that really showcase the creativity of teachers. She noted a teacher in Southwick that is doing an engineering design activity despite the social distancing that is taking place in their schools. 

2020 has seen many compounding existential problems ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the increasing effects of climate change. These are problems that are likely to have solutions that come from a STEM field.

Hanselman said that when one considers this, there are not enough people entering STEM fields today. 

“We do know that to have a diversity of individuals bringing diverse experience will help us really attack these global problems,” said Hanselman, “We need people coming at it from different viewpoints.”

Much of STEM week will take place Oct. 19 to Oct. 23. Students must register for Coleman’s Oct. 15 talk to receive the Zoom link. 

Hanselman said they are also putting on an event next week in which they are asking members of the community to think about creative ways to depict STEM around them.

“It could be a drawing, dance, music, a lego construction, or anything really,” said Hanselman, “Maybe members of the community will be inspired by a walk in nature. One thing we need to do as educated citizens is to think about opening our eyes to the world. Being responsible citizens means being able to know what is out there and appreciate what’s out there.”

There will be a virtual showcase of those community projects on Oct. 22.

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