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Emsworth astronaut stresses importance of STEM learning

| Thursday, July 14, 2016, 11:40 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Astronaut and Emsworth native Col. Mike Fincke gives the thumbs up as he answers questions about his time in space after speaking to campers and visitors at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore on Thursday, July 14, 2016. Col. Fincke served on the final mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2011 as well as other expeditions, with a total of 381 days, 15 hours and 11 minutes in orbit.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Astronaut and Emsworth native Col. Mike Fincke speaks about his time in space to campers and visitors at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore on Thursday, July 14, 2016. Col. Fincke, who has spent a total of 381 days, 15 hours and 11 minutes in orbit, filmed a segment of 'Daniel the Tiger's Neighborhood' before the talk.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Science camper Bryce Zatchey, 8, of Mars, raises his hand enthusiastically to ask a question of astronaut and Emsworth native Col. Mike Fincke as he speaks to campers and visitors at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore on Thursday, July 14, 2016. Zatchey, who thought he may be interested in being an astronaut someday, said he planned to ask Col. Fincke about his future plans for NASA's Orion spacecraft.
Tanner Cherin, 4, of Moon poses with Emsworth native and astronaut Mike Fincke at the Carnegie Science Center on Thursday, July 14, 2016. Cherin said he wants to be in space someday.

Emsworth native and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke opened a talk Thursday at the Carnegie Science Center by reminding children in the audience, “I was a kid once, too.”

Many in the crowd were attending summer camps, as Fincke, 49, once did. He said he remembers launching his first model rocket at a Community College of Allegheny County summer camp in the late 1970s.

Fincke, an Air Force colonel, touched on how his interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) led him to become an astronaut, and how today's youth should explore those fields.

“The future of the economy of our country depends a lot on having students appreciate and understand what STEM can offer,” he said.

Fincke's presentation was the latest in a series of initiatives to get children thinking about STEM.

According to the science center, 1 million additional STEM graduates will be needed to fill economic demands in the next decade. Western Pennsylvania industries will require more than 150,000.

That's why in 2011 the Science Center opened the Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development, said Linda Ortenzo, the center's director of STEM programs.

“The most important thing we do is to give kids firsthand engagement to see what they like and to connect them with passionate professionals,” Ortenzo said.

The center focuses some initiatives on girls, since women are under-represented in STEM careers, Ortenzo said.

Women hold only 25 percent of STEM jobs, and only 10 percent of American engineers are women, according to the science center.

“Tour Your Future” is a program at the center that connects girls 11 to 17 with female STEM professionals.

Amara Hitt, 13, was one of 220 summer campers who spent the day at the Science Center and attended Fincke's presentation.

“It's really, really cool to hear from someone who's been up in space,” said Hitt, of Castle Shannon. “He's been away from Earth, and it's not every day you get to meet someone who's been up in space before.”

Hitt said she would like to go to space and experience zero gravity, but her current goal is to become an architect.

Ortenzo said it's important for children to meet people in the field and see that STEM careers are possible.

“You can't be what you can't see,” she said.

Phillip Poupore is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7820 or ppoupore@tribweb.com.

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