At the Table: Broadening Horizons

Space educator Stephanie Wright sees the big picture.




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photograph by Tom Nutter

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Stephanie Wright’s interests are vast, but space holds a special place in her life. Wright was one of Delaware’s two Teacher in Space representatives during the 1980s, and she remains our NASA Space Ambassador and aerospace resource educator. As founder, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation and director of the Delaware Aerospace Academy, Wright is watching more than two decades of hard work culminate with construction of DASEF’s Innovation Technology Exploration Center near Smyrna. Wright leads a tour of the center’s Environmental Outpost, which includes a solar-heated office, a mini dinosaur museum and an observatory. A short trek up Wright Drive is the project’s much larger second phase, which, when built, will house classrooms, exhibits and a dormitory. Millions of dollars still need to be raised. After the tour, she heads up U.S. 13 to the ChesDel Restaurant for an interview, a burger, and a cup of crab and shrimp chowder. For someone who is willing to risk her life on a Space Shuttle mission, Wright is cautious behind the wheel; her car never exceeds 53 mph.


DT: Would you mind telling us a little about yourself?

SW: I was born in Boulder, Colorado. I came here when I was three years old. I went to Brandywine High School and went on to the University of Delaware and got a degree in music education and then a master’s degree at the U of D in language arts and then went on to get my doctorate in elementary education at Temple University. I have two beautiful sons, Henry and Harry. One is 25 one is 23. I’ve been married to my husband, Brian Wright, for 32 years. Brian played football at Delaware. He’s a programmer and has an interest in astronomy and physics. He’s in charge of the new telescope. He’ll get some advising from astronomers from the Delmarva Stargazers. As far as my background, I was in music for the first part of my career. Then I went on to the Teacher in Space. I was encouraged by my husband. I was not as confident then as I am now, but at the time I really felt it would be more of a science teacher but my husband went on to tell me that he thought it would be a communicator, that NASA was looking for someone who could communicate to the general public the inspiration and motivation of space and what it could do in a classroom for teachers and for children. So I went on to do it and I think there were 29 candidates. We kept narrowing down and narrowing down to 15 then 10 then five then it was down to two. Myself and Hank Bouchelle were selected as the two finalists from our state. They ended up with 114 finalists throughout the country. They were an incredible group of people. We all got down to Washington, D.C. There was one from each state and then there were additional teachers from the Department of Defense. NASA had us all sequestered in one room. There was so much energy in the room, I don’t think they knew what to do with us. When it registered that we were vying for a seat on the space shuttle, one of the NASA officials put their hand up on the shuttle’s external tank and said, “I just want all of you to know that this is a very volatile machine. You’ll be taking a big risk. You need to think it through and make sure that your desire to do this for education outweighs the risks.” It kind of broke the silence a little bit. It didn’t take long for everyone to understand that this was an incredible opportunity, not only as a personal endeavor, but as an educational endeavor—something that could represent all teachers in all of the United States and the world. The Teacher in Space program for me opened up even more doors because I always wanted to fly in space. I always wanted to do everything. I’ve always wanted to experience life to the fullest, to appreciate the beauty of life and people on this planet.


DT: Where does that come from?

SW: A love of life? I guess our family always did outdoor things. I had three brothers who were an inspiration to me, and my mother and, in particular, my father. He worked for DuPont and he passed away when he was 49 years old. He was brilliant. There was a lightness and a humor in him that I think was transmitted to the entire family. And I’ve always loved the outdoors and nature. If I had to pick, I love looking at artwork and museums, and I have a very artistic family, musicians, but at the same time, if I had to pick, I’d rather be outdoors and experience the natural world. It’s just come around to be able to have an intense appreciation of the arts, and to have been a music teacher, and majored in piano and have a brother that’s an artist, a mother that’s an artist, an aunt that’s an art teacher and uncle that’s a musician. And then to be able to see all of that in a scientific way and in a way that talks about earth and space science and brings it all together. I’ve been blessed in that I have kind of a big picture view, which is good. Because you need to be detailed, but you need to see how the details fit into the big picture. All the trips we’ve taken have all been outdoors: The Grand Canyon, Seattle, Alaska. Those are the kinds of things to us that have been absolutely wonderful. When you’re there, you can do museums and whatnot, but the focus has been on the outdoors.


DT: How did you suddenly go from being a music teacher to the Teacher in Space program?

SW: I have an enthusiasm and a motivation for children, to help them to see those disciplines, everything from music to physics and astrobiology. They’re all key pieces of what this world is comprised of. And I think it would behoove me as an educator to want to give them a desire to want to learn more about all of these. I don’t have the in-depth knowledge, but I can certainly, with our staff and our people, inspire them and motivate them to want to learn more and then the people who are the specialists can train them to become the leaders and the engineers and the technicians and the pilots of future generations. We want to enhance and we want to enrich education in the state of Delaware. Not only for children, but for teachers, who in my eye, are the finest professionals. There’s none better. They’re right up there with the cream of the crop. I value educators in this state and I support them in any way that we can. Our organization, the Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation, through earth and space science, wishes to give them opportunities, as well as children and youth groups in this state.


DT: Why start an aerospace foundation in Delaware?

SW: Our past superintendent, Dr. William B. Keene, who was a very dear friend, had encouraged me to work with him to see if we could come up with a statewide program and in 1989 I began working with the Delaware Teacher Center. It’s a wonderful group. It’s teachers for teachers. It’s run by teachers. And I worked side by side with them and I became the aerospace resource educator and space science educator for the state of Delaware, which is partially why the job is in Delaware. And also in Delaware, it’s the kind of state where you can be down in Delmar in the morning and back home by the end of the day. So I personally felt like I was making an impact on the state. So that’s a job that I still have. I’m in charge of aerospace education, in conjunction with the Delaware Teacher Center for the state of Delaware. I’ve been doing that since 1989.


DT: So that was a new position?

SW: It was a new position that was created through the Joint Finance Committee and through the Delaware Teacher Center. So although I work in conjunction with the state Department of Education, it might be doing some workshops or programs, it’s a separate entity that is through the Delaware Teacher Center. Toward the end of 1989, after I had started this wonderful position, I wanted to start a nonprofit that would run academies for children in the summer. So in 1990 with a group of five other teachers, we incorporated the Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation–DASEF. And that foundation started with one academy, the Delaware Aerospace Academy, which we ran at Glasgow High School. We had about 60 young people you came from sixth, seventh and eighth grade and it was very successful. The next year we decided to start an overnight academy that would also have a focus on space science. We opened that at the University of Delaware, so then we had two academies. Over time, we grew from a staff of six with very little pay, next to nothing, to a staff that works in the summer, it’s seasonal, of about 70. We have 45 experienced teachers who teach with us for a two- or three-week period. We have a leader of each academy and the teachers work with them. And then we have young children come in who have been through our academies and they will end up being counselors. We’re in our 17th season of the Delaware Aerospace Academy and then we have destination academies. The first one is Destination Dinosaur for children entering second and third grades, then it goes to Destination Sky & Beyond, Destination Space, Destination Flight, Destination Orbit, Moon and Mars. You hear those and you assume that it’s all just focused on aerospace. But we tie in current technology, engineering skills, cooperative learning, leadership, mathematics. All different things are tied together in that. The hook is earth and space science, but then you can teach pretty much anything. We do artwork, we do writing exercises. We could see that we were drawn to motivating and inspiring, but we also, in the beginning, began working with the Air Force, the air guard, with businesses—ATK, Boeing, ILC Dover and DuPont, and they would contribute speakers. We would take kids to Dover Air Force Base for survival training. Because we felt that we wanted our academies to focus on what we call applied learning. We didn’t want kids to feel like they were just going to get in and do a shuttle simulation, we also wanted them to understand that astronauts go through survival training. That ATK, which was Thiokol, makes the solid rocket boosters. We take them there and do a rocket firing and we’ve been there for the last 16 years. We’re the only young group that’s allowed to come in there—our 64 cadets come and they fire rockets for us and explain propulsion and that’s incredible. It relates right back to what we’re doing. Same with Boeing. They’ll show us how their engineers design and work next to scientists. And our young people need to understand that they’re the engineers and scientists of the 21st century and they need to work together. A lot of times you focus on one or the other, but they need to go hand in hand and there needs to be a mutual respect. They all need to sit at the table together because together they save a lot of time. They don’t have to backtrack and say, “Well, wait a minute, the scientists just told us what the experiments were, now you redesign this because it doesn’t fit.” So you get all the great minds at the table together. That’s how we teach in our academies. We teach them scientific method and the technological method. And they are different, but they are compatible. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but they work together. So, all of these pieces, partnering with higher learning throughout the state, partnering with the military, we work with the Civil Air Patrol, the air guard, Dover Air Force Base. Partnering with them began to help us develop additional programs. Keeping in mind that one was as with aerospace education, generally, across the board with the Delaware Teachers Center and the other was a nonprofit, but they always complemented each other. The nonprofit could provide the space shuttles that the children were going in. It could provide the K-3 simulators that were made by retired Boeing engineers. So they worked hand in hand to bring better programs, not only to the schools, but to teachers for professional development. We could go to Goddard Space Center for a focus group. Or the air guard flying a group of teachers on a flight that would take them down to Kennedy Space Center for three or four days for a conference. So we’ve had these wonderful relationships. Getting back to your original question, that’s why in Delaware this was a wonderful opportunity to work all of these things in a small state where the teachers could follow what you were doing and know what was coming up. Where the schools, from home schools to public to private to parochial to charter schools, could all get involved with the programs. Most of it is by word-of-mouth, but through the Delaware Teachers Center, we have a little periodical that goes out called Astrobits, through the foundation we have a website: Delaware is just a great state and we have an opportunity here to really impact the whole state because we’re situated in the middle of the state.


DT: Can you give us an overview of the ITEC project?

SW: Phase I is the Environmental Outpost. That is about 3,200 square feet. We have site work on a 40-acre property out of 90 acres that was leased to us through the Kent County Levy Court. We pay $1 a year for 100 years. We have a wonderful relationship with Kent County Parks and Recreation and Kent County Levy Court. Phase I is a “green” building that will provide everything from dinosaurs to stargazing through a 16-inch Meade telescope. Natural world, birds, trees, flowers, stream watch, wetlands—practically anything that will help a child see their connections to the natural world and beyond. That and the site work and a huge maintenance facility and garage that we built, about 3,000 square feet, came to about $3.5 million. That includes a holdup in the project due to an archaeological dig that was very exciting, but we had to move some parking lots and preservation. In that time frame, the price of steel and concrete went up. So we had some new challenges of raising money. It was a soybean field, so we’re trying to keep open space to keep the quality of life in Delaware. All of it came to about $3.5 million, but it’s paid for and done. We got a bit of the money from NASA appropriations through honorary chairs. Senator Biden, Senator Carper and Congressman Castle have worked hard for us in Washington. I have worked with NASA education programs since 1986. Our mission to use earth and space science as a motivational tool and enhancement for education is absolutely aligned with NASA’s educational program. We have felt very comfortable using some of these appropriations for this facility. We have NASA education resource center in the state. We work with the Delaware Space Grant group. I review NASA programs. I’ve done a number of things asides being Teacher in Space and I’m very strongly aligned with NASA and feel comfortable that the funds that have come to us are a win-win for NASA education and for the state of Delaware and, of course, for the Delaware AeroSpace Educaton Foundation. So, to date, a larger percentage of the funds have come through appropriations at the federal level. The state of Delaware, through different funds, has provided funding. Legislators have helped provide funding by designating some of their street funds for the site work. Foundations and businesses have contributed. Particularly DuPont, ILC Dover, AstraZeneca and others. And individuals. At this point, as we move into Phase II, we understand that NASA can’t provide funds, it’s not something they can do forever. And we are looking at this point, to raise additional funds for Phase II. We have just under $2 million right now that is being used toward Phase II. We have enough to do the geo structure, which is the foundation. We have enough to do the elevator shaft, pay for the elevator and all of the steel. We are now in the middle of fundraising for what we call Stage II of Phase II. Phase II is the museum and educational outreach area. It is about 45,000 square feet and will have 5,000 square feet for exhibits, which will focus on land, air, water, planets, technology and engineering. Having the people who come through see the connections between all of those and how each one impacts the other, good or bad. Inside, there will be a huge technology wall, which will focus on innovation and inventiveness through time. It’s called ITEC because the eye is your personal scope. Through your personal scope, you view the world in you own personal way. The next exhibit that you see, you’ll see the eye of the universe, which is a magnificent nebula, the Helix Nebula it’s called, and the Hubble space telescope, which is the most powerful telescope we have right now, can take us to see the beginnings of stars and things of that nature, so you’ll see that scope of to the left, after you come in. Then you’ll see an exhibit of all types of scopes. You use your personal scope to look through these and through these you see the world in a more connected way. You see telescopes, periscopes, kaleidoscopes, microscopes, you name it, we’ll have them all there so that the general public says, Oh my goodness. These are all inventive things that people came up with. Innovative ways for us to see the world better. We have just under $2 million to build this phase. Other parts of it will include 14 classrooms, a NASA resource center, which we run now, and it’s an overnight facility that will sleep up to 120 people. We’ll be able to run many different varied programs. Field trips will come to us, we’ll have our academies, we’ll have school programs. We’re doing a lot of these now. Now we’ll have one place where they can all come. We run a lot of what we do now at the University of Delaware. We’ve rented places, we go to schools. But we are really looking forward to having all of these in one place. Right now, we are funded through Stage I of Phase II. Stage II of Phase II is to finish off the outside of ITEC. From the outside, it will look complete. We need about $2.3 million to get to that point. The next phase is finishing off the inside. We’ll need anywhere from $2.8 to $3 million to finish off the inside. So right now, we are focused on Stage II or Phase II, which is raising $2.3 million. In order for us to finish all of Phase II, we need about $7 million over time. We’re doing it in pieces. We are looking to Delaware, to different foundations, not only locally but nationally. We are looking to business and anyone who has an interest the environment, earth systems, etc. We are bringing something that we feel will enhance education and the general public’s quality of life. Something in the middle of the state that will serve the entire state. We have magnificent museums that are available up in New Castle County, many of them are up north. Those are not the types of museums that field trips and families will come to from Delmar or from Indian River. We have been fortunate to have this opportunity with Kent County to build something in the center of the state, where parking isn’t a problem. It’s in a park. It’s a beautiful place and I think it will do what we think it will do and that is to inspire people with an appreciation of the earth and our place in the universe.


DT: What are some of the other exhibits we’ll eventually see?

SW: The first exhibit that we purchased is by Wyland. He is just an incredible marine biology artist and he’s done whales all up and down the East Coast and the nation. He’s a very green person. Our first exhibit is water as a resource. It shows children what can happen to a raindrop from the time it comes out of the faucet and where it goes and what happens to it and how we really need to be conscious of pollution and working harder to do less.


DT: Through the years, we’ve come across some folks who were pretty skeptical about your project. For years, they didn’t see anything being built and wondered what was being done with the funding. Have you heard some of that and what do you say to people who think the money could be better spent?

SW: I haven’t heard anything negative about where the funding is going because, in particular, when you have state funding and federal funding, you have to request it. Then you have bills to be reimbursed. It takes a lot to do the studies, to have the pre-construction work and then to move into it. So the negatives—if you would consider them negatives, I prefer to use the word challenge—the challenges have been that folks have said back in 1990, “You’re never going to build this building. You and your group can’t do this.” It’s been in my head and all of our heads for a very long time that our state needs something like this that serves the entire state. And that gets back to the initial question that you asked me, which is why Delaware? Where else can you have something that serves an entire state? Well, it needs to be in the middle. So that’s why we ended up in Smyrna. Now we do have a place to hang our hat and we can bring people there and they can see it. We had an open house last April and we had one in September and we had 1,000 people from up and down the state. And they brought their children. And they stayed, some of them, for six hours. They stayed so they could see the telescope that night. Our next one will be on April 14. We had an invitational open house a few weeks ago for people who brought guests and they were delighted to see what we had and that it was quality of life improvement. That it’s something that educates children in a very peaceful, nice, awe-inspiring way. So I think the people who may have started out saying this can’t happen or asking why, come and then they understand how encompassing it is and that we are doing what we said we would do. I hope in an assertive way, not in an aggressive way. It’s been a long, hard road and we’ve had incredible people behind us along the way.

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