Diego Leal was curious about the man for whom the school he attends is named- Michael E. Fossum Middle School in McAllen.
"I was wondering who he was for awhile," said Leal, a sixth grade student. "In the main office they have a picture of him; they have a picture of him on the cover of our planners."
On Tuesday, Sept. 27, he was able to learn more about the McAllen native and NASA astronaut by talking with Fossum, who is currently serving on the International Space Station, directly via Downlink.
The University of Texas-Pan American facilitated the event during its Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week's Student Leadership Day, which was sponsored by Lockheed Martin and Motorola Solutions.
More than 1,200 middle school students from all over the Rio Grande Valley came to campus to learn about the many opportunities available to them if they go to college, graduate and pursue careers related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Standing on stage inside the packed UTPA Fieldhouse, Leal and fellow students from Fossum asked the astronaut many questions, including what life was like for him aboard the space station, how living in space affected his view of the world and what projects he was working on in space.
Leal, who did some research on Fossum before the interview and learned he was a test pilot when he served in the military, asked the astronaut what his favorite aircraft was. (It's an F-16.)
"I was kind of surprised because I was thinking it would be one of the spacecrafts he was in, but it turns out it was one of the military aircrafts he was in," Leal said.
Answering another student who asked how being in space influenced his view of the world and humanity, Fossum said it made him realize that earth is a small, finite place.
"When we're on the ground and we're watching the news and we're going about our business in our little corners of this globe, we think of it all very locally -- and that's appropriate," he said. "Up here though, when you go across countries very quickly and go across continents in minutes, you really get a sense that we are on one place ... and you kind of wish that we could all live and work here together in a friendlier way and in a more cooperative way because it is one world, one planet and one atmosphere. The oceans are all joined together, and so we share so much, and I think we need to learn how to take care of that together, be good stewards of this gift that we have."
Students also heard from Ron Brokmeyer, president and general manager for OXY USA South Texas Business Unit, who told them about his journey to become a petroleum engineer and urged students to graduate high school and college and pursue a career in engineering.
Brokmeyer ended his speech with one riddle to stress the benefits of becoming an engineer: "What do you call an engineer who has been out of school for 10 years? Boss."
Actor Moises Arias, who has appeared in movies and TV shows including "Hannah Montana," also answered questions from students and offered them encouraging words about staying in school.
The middle schoolers also participated in numerous activities, including building solar-powered boats and thwarting zombies while learning how to prepare for a real-life emergency, and sat in on panel discussions where representatives from companies talked about how science and math are used in their jobs.
During a luncheon at the UTPA Fieldhouse, keynote speaker Meagan Campion, director of STEM education initiatives for Lockheed Martin Corp., encouraged the kids to keep up with their studies.
"I want you to get out there and take challenging courses and do something in science and engineering," said Campion. "There are a lot of activities out there from robotics to space travel so get out there. The next generation of engineers are hopefully in this room."
The luncheon was followed by one final break-out session and a number of giveaways. The raffles closed out Student Leadership Day for an excited audience.
While youths attending Student Leadership Day learned more about the variety of STEM-related careers, another 1,000 middle school students dabbled with scientific experiments at The Middle School Challenge sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
UTPA students also learned about career opportunities in the social sciences and about advances in medicine at symposia held by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, respectively.
At the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Symposium representatives from the FBI and Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park in Brownsville spoke about their careers and the opportunities available to students pursuing careers in the social sciences. The event included a panel of students who talked about their internship experiences and a poster contest of student research.
At the College of Health Sciences and Human Services Symposium, U.S. Navy Capt. Cynthia I. Macri, M.D., discussed the importance of using simulation Manikins in educating students and studying health disparities, as well as research possibilities for minorities and how communication plays a vital role in the medical field.
"The simulation center here at UTPA contributes to the improvement of communication and culturally sensitive students, physicians and providers in taking care of the patient population," Macri said. "Knowing and understanding how simulations work can save lives not just immediately, but long term and among groups of people who may not otherwise have the benefit of culturally competent medical staff and care."
During the symposium, nine students talked about their experiences working with the simulated life-like Manikin patient.
"Having this simulation lab provides advances and opportunities for our profession and for our peers to advance ourselves in a health care setting and to be better prepared individuals once we are out in the real world," said Ramiro Tey, a physician assistant student.
HESTEC continues Wednesday with Latina Day, when about 500 middle school girls and their mothers or other female relatives will come to campus to hear from successful Latinas who overcame boundaries to flourish in their careers and lives.
For a full agenda of events, visit www.hestec.org.