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US Space Program Reaches Out to Hispanic Youngsters

One in three Hispanic students in the United States will not finish high school. Educators say too few of those who do graduate will enter technical fields such as science and engineering. The U.S. space agency NASA is introducing Hispanic students to the wonders of space in the hopes of sparking their interest.

Two hundred elementary school students, many of them Hispanic, came to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, an elaborate complex in the hills of Pasadena, California. JPL's Blaine Baggett pointed out models of unmanned spacecraft that were designed and controlled from here at the lab. "Those are some of the cool things that go on here at the laboratory. And you're going to have a great, great, great day," he said.

First came a little space humor. "OK. What does an astronaut eat on? What kind of plate does an astronaut eat on? A flying saucer."

There is a serious reason, however, for the visit by the children, says Hector Saenz of IBM, a sponsor of the event. "The idea behind this program is to bring the kids into kind of an inspirational setting and awaken their curiosity a little bit in math, sciences, and technology. And we give them a message about continuing in school and applying themselves to studies," he said. "And as an example awaken their curiosity a little bit with the fantastic displays that our colleagues at JPL have provided.

One of those colleagues, Karina Edmonds, came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a child. She says the airplane that brought her family here fascinated her, and sparked a lifelong interest in science. She went on to complete a doctorate in aeronautical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. She says she has a message for the students. "That they can reach their dreams, to dream big, and to work hard to achieve those dreams, and that they need to be dedicated, determined, and diligent in reaching those goals," he said.

Fifth grade teacher Buoi Lam of Brightwood Elementary School says this is a special field trip for her students. "And I hope a lot of them will be more excited about space, going into engineering and the sciences," he said.

Displays of spacecraft, a working model of a Mars rover, and an oversized character dressed in a NASA spacesuit, all impressed the students.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Eugene Tattini is deputy director of the Jet Propulsion lab. He also left the students with a message. "As you look around today and look at all of these spacecraft -- in your lifetimes, you are going to have the opportunity to watch people permanently live on the moon," he said.

He says they can be part of the next generation of space explorers.

Volunteers from IBM, the space agency NASA and partner organizations are presenting similar programs to youngsters in other major US cities