Wallingford schools celebrate opening of space science center

WALLINGFORD — Interacting with robots and coding systems, students and school administrators got a glimpse Tuesday of the latest technology available with the launch of a new space science center at Fritz Elementary School.

The school system is partnering with the Australia-based Victorian Space Science Education Centre in creating the center in a wing of Fritz Elementary School, for students to build skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The Center for Innovation and Design will be open to students in all grades and all schools and is scheduled to be completed in January 2021, local officials said.

Renovation plans call for a robotics area, a research laboratory, a mission control room and areas for the space program. The M.A.R.S. Base program will allow students to collect and analyze samples in a spacesuit and communicate with peers using coding language. The basement of the building is slated for renovations to create a replica of the surface of Mars, equipped with soil, rocks, and lighting to simulate the environment. 

School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said the project began during a trip to Australia with students in August. The VSSEC has worked with the school system to recreate the programs and resources in Australia for students in town. Menzo said members of the school community, the Australian school community, and the town worked together to launch the project.

“I truly am so proud of all the work that has gone into this and how it’s already starting to impact our students,” Menzo said.

Mia Mills, a junior at Sheehan High School, was one of the students that visited Australia and the VSSEC in the summer. When Mills applied for the program she  never imagined it would lead to the opening of the town’s space science center.

“This is crazy because we were in Australia like three months ago and now we’re here and actually experiencing it,” Mills said. “Who would have ever thought that it was going to be here for our students to learn.”

Director of VSSEC Michael Pakakis said most of the elements from the space science center in Victoria will be built in the Center for Innovation and Design.

“The beauty about this is, we know these types of programs definitely have a huge engagement factor but as educators, we know that engagement is not enough,” Pakakis said. “So that’s why all of the activities, all of the analysis work, the investigations that they’re going to be doing, will be linked to what is being taught in the classroom.”

Menzo said the center will be integrated into the curriculum. The goal is for students to be best prepared for the future.

Connecticut District Director for the U.S. Department of Commerce Anne Evans said she has worked with local businesses to sell globally, but said she would also like to work with schools because they are the source of future business leaders. Evans initiated the idea for students to visit Australia to explore potential opportunities and introduced Menzo to representatives at VSSEC.

Advancements in space are expected to contribute to a billion-dollar industry. 

“These are all companies that understand how advanced manufacturing and STEM are in their future,” Evans said. “Wallingford has more exporters per capita than anyplace else in the United States. So Wallingford is an international town because it has so much business that does business internationally.”

Retired NASA Astronaut Dan Burbank spoke with students about his 22-year career and how he flew on space shuttles and lived onboard the International Space Station. Burbank said after his last mission he began teaching at the Coast Guard Academy. Currently, he is working with United Technologies Corporation at Collins Aerospace, which makes spacesuits, environmental control systems, thermal control systems and electrical power systems.

“... a very big part of the company’s public outreach is supporting initiatives like this right here in Wallingford,” Burbank said. 

Burbank’s goal is for students to envision themselves in space and prepare the next generation for the workforce.

“It will happen on a magnitude greater by the time these kids are entering the college system and then hopefully we get to hire a bunch of them to come work for us and help build the next generation with solutions that will help get us to Mars,” Burbank said.


Menzo would not discuss how much completing the center would cost but said the school board has accepted up to $35,000 in donations so far. Businesses in attendance were given information on donations at different “launch levels” depending on the amount.

“We’re sort of moving forward with trying to get additional donations,” Menzo said.

For a “Crew Member” donation, $2,500 or more, a room is named for an organization or business. For an “Astronaut” donation, $5,000 or more, a program is named. For “Mission Control” donations of $20,000 or more, both a room and program are named for a business or organization.

“Our goal is to really minimize the local funds required to develop the center,” Menzo said. “So we’re really looking for donations and we are very fortunate, we have significant corporate partnerships that we’re going to rely on to help us cross the finish line so to speak.”

Twitter: @JenieceRoman


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