October 29, the Sacred Heart Greenwich community welcomed Dr. Peggy A. Whitson (Ph.D.), a retired Chief Astronaut from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a former biochemistry researcher. Sacred Heart hosted other guests during this event-filled day including Mrs. Kate Snow, American television journalist for NBC Nightly News for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Ms. Nancy Greco, leading International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) scientist and Distinguished Engineering Executive and Director, and Dr. Tess Caswell, engineer planetary scientist and simulation astronaut for NASA. The occasion served to initiate Sacred Heart’s newly-forged collaboration with NASA and IBM.
Throughout the day, Dr. Whitson, Dr. Caswell, and other guests toured classes, delivered presentations, and attended the reopening of the renovated Mary Aloysia Hardey, RSCJ Observatory.
The day’s events began as Mrs. Snow interviewed Mrs. Jenn Bensen, Head of the Upper School at Sacred Heart, about Dr. Whitson’s visit. In this interview, Mrs. Bensen shared how Sacred Heart is promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) education for all students, including a coding program in the Lower School and the Science Research program in the Middle School and Upper School
“Having Dr. Whitson at Sacred Heart Greenwich gives students the opportunity to meet a role model who has demonstrated the intellect, passion, and dedication to achieve her life’s ambition of being an astronaut,” Mrs. Bensen said.
Sacred Heart faculty, staff, and students gathered in the Athletic Center Gym to listen to Dr. Whitson as she recounted her personal experiences in space exploration.
Junior Piper Van Wagenen introduced Dr. Whitson and addressed the highlights of her space travel. She also spoke about her grandfather, Mr. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. In turn, Dr. Whitson recognized him as an inspiration for her passion for space.
“When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, it really left an impression on me, and I dreamed of becoming an astronaut then,” Dr. Whitson said in an interview with “Today from the Heart.”
During the assembly, Dr. Whitson answered questions from students among all grade levels. The students inquired about her experiences, responsibilities, and challenges in space and as a NASA scientist. Head of School Mrs. Pamela Hayes gifted Dr. Whitson the title of a distinguished alumna of Sacred Heart Greenwich to conclude the presentation.
After the presentation assembly, Dr. Whitson visited the observatory with students and faculty. Mr. Robert Morrow, Upper School science and Astronomy Teacher, instructed Piper, senior Natty Pazos, and four Lower School students on how to use the new telescope in the observatory. He also asked the girls questions and discussed what they saw through the telescope. Dr. Whitson engaged with the students in these activities.
Listen to Mr. Morrow describe the upgrades to the observatory here.
“I think Dr. Whitson’s visit was impactful for every girl at Sacred Heart, especially the Lower Schoolers,” Piper said. “The young girls were able to hear firsthand an incredible story of a woman who broke barriers both on Earth and in space, which I believe gave them a strong female role model to look up to.”
From the observatory reopening, Dr. Whitson met with Middle School Robotics Team students and Middle School Coordinator of Educational Technology Ms. Ana Nystedt to discuss their research projects and LEGO robots in the Makerspace. The students also discussed the LEGO Robotic competition theme, “Into Orbit,” with Dr. Whitson.
Dr. Caswell also spent the day touring the school, visiting different classes and talking with students. She took the afternoon to speak to the AP Computer Science class about her role at Blue Origins, a private commercial spaceflight company, and the prospects of using computer science to automate the company’s flights completely.
In the afternoon, IBM and NASA guests, as well as Sacred Heart Science and Broadcast Journalism faculty, had the opportunity to eat lunch with Dr. Whitson in the McLaughlin Gallery. The faculty spoke with Dr. Whitson and asked questions about different fields of science. After lunch, NBC interviewed Dr. Whitson in Mrs. Hayes’ office. This interview was for a future segment of “The Drink” for NBC Nightly News with Mrs. Snow. Dr. Whitson, unable to have carbonated drinks in space, returned to Earth and requested a Diet Pepsi with a lemon slice. The Upper School Broadcast Journalism students from “Today from the Heart” were able to watch this interview. They also had an opportunity to interview Dr. Whitson.
The Upper School newspaper, the King Street Chronicle, and the Middle School student blog, The Tiger Times, interviewed Dr. Whitson. The Broadcast Journalism students also interviewed Mrs. Snow, in the David J. Bloom Broadcast Suite for a future segment of “Today from the Heart.”
Sacred Heart invited IBM and NASA guests, as well as AP Science students, Science Research students, their families, and the Sacred Heart faculty, to have dinner with Dr. Whitson in Hayes Hall. After the reception, Mrs. Hayes invited students and families to “a star-studded conversation” with a panel of women and men, including Dr. Whitson, Ms. Greco, and Dr. Caswell, involved in STEAM fields in the Lennie and John de Csepel Theatre that night.
Other guests included Mr. Zachary Lemnios, an American scientist who leads Physical Sciences and Government programs for IBM, Ms. Mary Musolino, Upper School Science Teacher and Director of Sacred Heart’s Science Research Program, and Mr. Dan Barstow, senior educator and manager for the International Space Station and leader of the Space Station Explorer Program. The members of the panel shared their thoughts on the value of engaging girls in STEAM education.
Before the panel answered questions, Ms. Greco announced the partnering of NASA, IBM, and Sacred Heart to further women’s education in the STEAM field.
“We will move the needle in STEAM for the female population,” Ms. Greco said.
They also spoke about the importance of learning STEAM subjects and the different opportunities to expand beyond the classroom and into a career in the STEAM field.
“I never imagined being the first female chief of the astronaut office, but I kept doing things that challenged myself and I ended up getting roles that were even bigger and bigger,” said Dr. Whitson in an interview with the King Street Chronicle. “I encourage each of you to do the same in your lives, challenge yourself to do more than you think you can.”
As the day drew to an end, Dr. Whitson as well as students, their families, faculty, and IBM scientists walked to the newly re-opened observatory to star-gaze.
– Caroline Baranello, Arts and Entertainment Editor and Photo Editor
Featured Image by Caroline Baranello ’20