COLUMBIA — As Principal Troy Hogg introduced NASA's Sandra Magnus, shouts and cheers could be heard down the halls of Benton Elementary School.
"Are you all ready to meet a real, live astronaut?" Hogg asked.
While making her way to Missouri University of Science and Technology, Magnus stopped in Columbia for two days of presentations. Benton Elementary held an assembly devoted to the astronaut as part of its newly adopted STEM program. Magnus will also be speaking at a fundraiser to promote FIRST, an engineering program that Benton will be participating in soon.
Eager students beamed at the sight of Magnus and her rocket ship photos. They gasped over the northern lights and aerial views of St. Louis as Magnus explained how the orbiters and engines worked on a spaceship and the careful way to eat freeze-dried meals in zero gravity.
As they watched a video montage of Magnus' mission, students pretended to blast off into outer space and convulsed their bodies as if they were sitting in a rocket.
"In seventh grade, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut," Magnus said. "I bet you all have a special dream ... You can achieve whatever you want to do."
Her lively and informative presentation raised several questions from curious students:
"How do you go to the bathroom up there?"
"How many buttons are on the spaceship?"
"Why doesn't outer space have air?"
"Have you ever seen wormholes or aliens?"
There was no question Magnus couldn't answer.
The school has also recently decided to start a Junior FIRST LEGO League, a robotics program based on science and engineering for grades K-3.
FIRST offers programs for every age group. The Army Ants, a high school robotics team in Columbia, presented its robot to Benton Elementary during the school's STEM Showcase in September. Because the presentation interested several students, the Army Ants want to make FIRST Robotics accessible to children in Boone County at all levels of the competition.
Julie Lyman, data coordinator at the Columbia Area Career Center, works directly with the Army Ants and hopes to have success with Benton's LEGO League.
"We want our kids to help mentor their students," Lyman said. "If we can get kids young enough, the learning and discovery will help their future careers."
In an effort to build a platform for FIRST Robotics and inspire the next generation of children, Magnus was scheduled to speak at a fundraising event Thursday night. Proceeds from the event will benefit the FIRST Robotics competition and LEGO League.
"You want to encourage (kids) to follow their dreams," Magnus said. "Space is a tool to get kids excited and the hope is to hook them and keep the interest."