WALLINGFORD — As the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, eight local students are preparing for a 10-day trip to Australia focused on science, technology and space exploration.
A variety of cultural and educational activities are planned for the eight high school students — six junior and two sophomore girls — mostly in Melbourne, Victoria, and Sydney, New South Wales.
When they return, they’ll join a school district steering committee for the first-of-its-kind Connecticut Student Space Center, to be located at Mary G. Fritz Elementary School.
Gretchen Seibt, a 15-year-old Sheehan High School rising junior selected for the trip, said that she has an interest in aerospace engineering.
“I really wanted to jump on the opportunity to experience it and learn more about it,” she said. “It’s so unique. I’ve always been fascinated by airplanes, helicopters, spaceships, and I’ve always wanted to help design them.”
She’s looking forward to the connections she’ll make with Australian students, but feels it will also be a chance to see if she wants to pursue a career in aerospace.
Elena Bielesz, a 15-year-old Lyman Hall High School rising sophomore who’s also going, said the program was offered to freshmen and sophomore students.
“We had to tell why we wanted to go on the trip,” Bielesz said, “and how it would impact our school year, and what we would do with the knowledge we gained.”
She wanted to experience a different culture. Planned activities include visits to the opera, a rugby match, a wildlife reservation tour and lunch in Parliament.
The students also will experience a state-of-the-art flight simulator and be the first Americans to experience the Mission to Mars at the Victorian Science Student Education Center.
The students will get a private tour of Parliament from the Melbourne Minister of Treasury. In addition, they will have an opportunity to meet and talk with staff at the U.S. Consulate in Australia.
Chaperoning the trip are Wallingford Public Schools Superintendent Salvatore Menzo, who attended the University of Sydney as an undergraduate, as well as Assistant Superintendent Carrie LaTorre, Sheehan High School Assistant Principal Justin Marciano and Cook Hill Elementary School Principal Kristine Friend.
The group is expected to leave Monday for Melbourne and is set to return Aug. 2.
Menzo said that the trip is an outgrowth of the school district's collaboration with the U.S. Department of Commerce on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and workforce development.
Last year, Menzo traveled to Australia to work with education officials in Melbourne on STEM and workforce development collaboration ideas. As a result, he established partnerships with the Victoria education department, Swinburne University and the Victorian Space Science Education Center.
The trip is an exchange program, connecting the Wallingford students with students from Girton Grammar School in Bendigo, Victoria, as they begin work on their capstone and Connecticut Certificate for Global Engagement Projects.
“We’re going to Swinburne University,” Bielesz said, “and that’s where we’re going to be developing our Global Engagement Project, which is something that impacts how we see the world globally and how different cultures affect us.”
The group’s first visit will be to the engineering and robotics labs at the University of Sydney. After that, they will travel to Melbourne to meet the students from Girton.
The students plan to continue their collaboration throughout the school year. The Australian students hope to visit Wallingford in March 2020 to share the outcomes of the work, Menzo said.
As the first part of the program, the students participated in a luncheon interview on May 16 in Hartford with Melanie Saunders, NASA deputy associate administrator, at Connecticut's first International Space Summit, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“That was really cool,” Bielesz said, “because you got to hear about all of her experience and challenges that she faced, and you got to hear how everything pieces together at NASA.”
Menzo said he’s proud of the students and staff.
“This is truly a wonderful opportunity for our students to continue to be challenged in engaging ways,” he said, “while also exposing them to other cultures and the many STEM fields that exist and are in desperate need (of) future experts.”
Bielesz said she has a special gift for the Australians: PEZ dispensers and candy. Since the company is located in Orange, it has a Connecticut connection, she said.
“As an offering of friendship, I might offer it to one of the people I follow around during the day,” she said.