BY JASMINE PALMA
Eighty students participating in the second annual LaGuardia Airport Redevelopment Summer STEM Program graduated during a remote ceremony on Friday. The ceremony featured Queens native and retired NASA Astronaut Ellen Baker.
Middle school students from East Elmhurst enrolled in the three-week program participated in virtual STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities oriented toward aviation.
Students studied topics related to planes, rockets, weather, kites, satellites, climate change and sustainable energy, among others. Each lesson involved an interactive hands-on activity for students to engage in.
Fatima Calderon and her son, Diego Torres, 13, of Jackson Heights, said the program came at the most opportune time since summer activities have been largely limited due to the pandemic.
“As a parent, the program was really helpful to keep our children busy over the summer when we didn’t have outside activities due to COVID,” Calderon said. “The STEM program wasn’t just about sitting in front of a computer. It was very project-heavy with lots of hands-on activities, actually doing work. As a parent, I really appreciated that.”
Meanwhile, Torres said that he can now fathom a career in aviation, something he had not considered prior to the program.
“I really enjoyed the program, it was a lot of fun,” said Torres, a student at I.S. 145. “I didn’t know how cool space was and I didn’t know how flying airplanes was so cool.”
Baker, who went to Bayside High School, revered the kids’ involvement, calling them the “scientists, engineers and problem-solvers of the future.”
“What you’ve done in showing an interest in science and technology and engineering and math puts you in a good position to continue your education and … be the problem solvers of the future,” Baker told the graduating members.
Baker earned a bachelor of arts degree in geology from the State University of New York at Buffalo, later attaining her doctorate of medicine degree from Cornell University. She then pursued training in internal medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center.
She joined NASA following her residency in 1981 as a medical officer at the Johnson Space Center. Baker was selected as an astronaut in 1984, logging more than 686 hours in space.
She offered reflections on her success in STEM to the graduates, having been aboard the space shuttle three times in her flights to space.
“I never thought in a million years that I would become an astronaut when I was a little kid growing up in Queens. I am living proof that opportunities will present themselves that you can’t even imagine now,” she said.
Despite her accomplishments, she shared one of her regrets with the kids. “Quite honestly, I wanted to play baseball for the New York Yankees and it’s still a bitter disappointment that I never got the chance!”
Sponsored by the Port Authority, Delta Airlines and the LaGuardia Gateway Partners, the program works in conjunction with Langston Hughes Library and Cultural Center in East Elmhurst, and the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.
“The students, who share an interest in aviation, were thrilled to hear from a former NASA astronaut, who had literally reached the ultimate height of her profession by flying into space on three separate missions. They were inspired by the fact that like them, Ellen Baker had grown up in Queens and attended public schools before going to college and medical school,” said a spokesman for the Port Authority.
The STEM program, along with the scholarships to Vaughn College offered to students from Queens, is an ongoing initiative with the intent to invest in students in nearing communities of LaGuardia airport in order to foster interest in careers in aviation, science and technology, according to a spokesperson for the program. Queens is a hub for aviation-related employment, having 96 percent of New York City’s air transportation jobs.
“Our summer STEM program and our scholarships in partnership with Vaughn College are important investments by the Port Authority as we help to inspire the next generation of leaders in aviation,” said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton. “As we continue to invest in the transformation of LaGuardia Airport into a 21st-century facility, we look forward to seeing talented students from nearby neighborhoods in Queens use opportunities like these to find exciting careers in aviation, and at the Port Authority.”
Other speakers were featured in the ceremony, including Queens Public Library President and CEO Dennis Walcott; Shakira Smalls, executive director of the Queens Public Library; Huntley Lawrence, director of Aviation at the Port Authority; Ryan Marzullo, Delta Airlines’ managing director of New York Construction; Stewart Steeves, CEO LaGuardia Gateway Partners; and Ines Jihon, bilingual education coordinator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, who led the online instruction. Queens Borough President Sharon Lee and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubrey also offered their greetings.