Four excited middle school Pascua Yaqui students are over the moon at having been enrolled in Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama this summer. During the week-long program they will meet NASA astronauts and be immersed in simulated astronaut training that could change their lives.
“I’m going to make new friends from places around the world, and see how it looks inside of a real spaceship and eat special astronaut food—pizza inside of a toothpaste tube,” said fifth-grader Serena Martinez. “I’m going to learn about gravity!”
Martinez along with Soledad Ramirez, Saydee Valenzuela and Yanissa Coronad are the lucky Pascua Yaqui students who will be the ambassadors for the Tucson-area tribe that will be sending students to Space Camp for the next five years. All 12 girls in the three cohorts will be shuttling to Space Camp for three years in a row in a five-year program structured to send the girls hurtling toward careers in the STEM fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
“We’re unearthing their potential and throwing a pebble in the pond knowing they’re going to ripple out,” said Czarina Salido, executive director of Time in Cosmology, a nonprofit that sponsors the Taking Up Space program. Taking Up Space is designed to interest indigenous girls in physics and scientific study of the origins and evolution of the universe. The girls are already familiar with Takaria Ania, the Night World, an integral part of their own cosmology, which includes the belief that their ancestors become stars in the night sky.
Time in Cosmology has been collaborating with tribal members Mario Molina, Director of Education; Anna Tarazon, Education Compliance/Sr. Research Analyst; and Sabestine Hernandez, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Computer Lab Supervisor to extend this extraordinary experience to the Pascua Yaqui students, all of whom participate in an after-school girls-only science club that Salido directs on the Pascua Yaqui reservation.
“The ultimate dream is to have one of the girls become the first Yaqui astronaut, but we’re hoping all of the girls will be inspired to go into a career in STEM, succeed in life, and that the commitment to spending time over three years at Space Camp will give them these skills,” Salido said.
Attaining confidence-building skills like dynamic problem solving, critical thinking and working as a team to successfully complete their mission are built into the scenarios the Pascua Yaqui Space Campers will be asked to fulfill while also learning about the history of space flight and building and launching rockets.
In addition to supporting the Pascua Yaqui students emotionally to leave the reservation and their families for a week of intensive training, intellectual preparations are also already underway. With readings, videos and by conducting experiments in their science club, the girls will be preparing for their adventure right up until it’s time to get on the airplane.
“This will be my first time flying,” said third-grader Soledad Ramirez whose main interest in science so far has been collecting rocks for their colors and shapes. “It’s going to be fun and awesome looking out at the sky. I want to see the houses and buildings from up there and watch the birds travel really far. I feel like I’ll be able to appreciate the birds.”
The 9-year-old already has questions about space that she hopes to resolve at camp. “How does the sky move and we don’t feel it?” she wonders. “How come we see the clouds move and not the other stuff?”
Fourth-grader Saydee Valenzuela is curious about what it might be like to be an astronaut. “Is it hard driving in space? How do they feel being weightless, is it tiring?”
Saydee had mixed feelings after seeing the movie Hidden Figures. “It was good, but it was also sad, because they were racist,” she said.
Valenzuela’s mother Shelley is especially pleased at the positive impact this trip may have on her daughter and Saydee’s other siblings. “She’ll see the world as it is, and inspire her little sisters. It will change her perception. She’ll be able to put 2 and 2 together, and learn this is our world.”
Serena Martinez’s mother Tinamarie agrees. “They’re not only going to be reaching for the stars, they’ll be touching the stars,” she said.
Martinez expects to shed a few tears when taking Serena to the airport. “She’s always been by my side, but now it’s her time to spread her wings and fly.”