NORWALK, Conn. — Most students can't wait for the final bell on Fridays. But the fifth-graders in the Young Astronauts Program at Columbus Magnet School in Norwalk look forward to staying in school — for a few more hours.
The hands-on science enrichment program uses a space exploration theme to teach children about STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art and math. About 130 students from grades 1-5 are involved in the 22-year-old extra-curricular program.
In grades 1-4, children learn about astronomy, the solar system, the galaxy and the universe. In the fifth grade, they become “astronauts” and stay after school every Friday throughout the school year to work on a year-long "mission."
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Star Wars," this year's mission — called "A New Alliance" — is about an X-Wing fighter pilot named Jaira Anaro whose damaged ship passes through a wormhole and crash-lands on the moon, said program coordinator Yolande LeCoz.
“Students break up into groups and use their STEAM skills to help Jaira get back home,” said LeCoz, whose fifth-grade daughter is in the program.
Students have already decoded her mayday call and created a plan to deliver supplies to the moon for Jaira.
According to Robert Lasky, media and technology coordinator of the program, the rest of the mission is robotics-based.
"Students will build a functional robot whose purpose is to help Jaira navigate home," said Lasky, who also has a fifth-grade daughter in the program.
Part of the students' training involves working with a retired U.S. Navy SEAL on physical fitness. “Just as if they are a real astronaut, they have to be physically fit," Lasky said.
Aside from doing exercises, students "had to take and sign a pledge that they will not drink soda until after their mission is complete," he said.
That pledge proved hard to keep three years ago, he said, when his older daughter was in the program.
"One of the kids broke his pledge and admitted that he had a soda. So, the Navy SEAL made all of the young astronauts work extra hard that week. This is a team, and just like with the military, if you're part of a team you don't want to let everybody down," Lasky said.
According to Lasky, each of the activities presents a variety of challenges. "There are a lot of different topics they have to learn about such as aerodynamics, structural engineering and encryption," he said.
LeCoz said that program teaches lifelong skills. “During the course of the year-long project, students mature, become leaders and learn how to problem solve,” she said.
Parents pay dues, which go toward school supplies and paying the teachers who lead the program.
In May, once their mission is complete, the entire school comes into the gym and watches as the young astronauts — wearing flight suits — are announced by name.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk/Darien), Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling and other legislators attend the final event each year.
"The mayor presents the kids with a proclamation that dedicates the day as Young Astronauts Day," he said.
For more information on Columbus Magnet School's Young Astronauts Program, click here .