STEM in the Community and NASA at Tauranga

Tuesday 10th January 2023 – By Janet Van Jenkins

The day was finally here – Tuesday 10th January 2023 saw queues stretching out across Tauranga Boys’ College campus as over 600 keen young scientists and space enthusiasts lined up (in the rain!) to come and spend a “Night in with a NASA Astronaut”.

Let’s rewind to where it all began… in mid-November as we began planning what this tour would look like, we wanted the capstone event of this first STEM in the Community initiative for 2023 to be in Tauranga as our grand finale. We had pictured a lovely kiwi summer evening on the Waterfront with the iconic Mauao as a backdrop, bubble machines a-go, tamariki enjoying popcorn and candy floss in the early evening sun while watching rockets be launched across the Waterfront, looking at the sun through a solar lens telescope, hands-on activities with Tauranga Astronomical Society, all while families set up their picnic blankets in front of the stage for an evening of talks under a clear starry night sky.

With that dreamy image, we got to work. Rachael worked her magic to chat to Tauranga City Council and all our amazing partners so we had the Waterfront booked and ready for groups to come and set up activities. Tia got to mapping and planning everything out so we could fit as many people as possible in, and I got to finding aerospace industry experts from Aotearoa to come and join us as speakers alongside Dr. Kate Rubins.

In our search for industry experts to join us in sharing their own journeys to space, we were recommended Dr. Sarah Kessans, Kate Breach (Kiwi Kate), and Emma Comrie-Thomson.
Dr. Kessans is a biochemist and senior lecturer with University of Canterbury’s School of Product Design, and she is currently developing new microgravity laboratory technology to have up on the International Space Station. Kiwi Kate is an aerospace engineer, having previously worked as a fighter jet engineer and moved into technical consulting and diplomacy in the space sector, working with NZ Space Agency, NASA, Canadian and Australian space agencies. Emma is an environmental management specialist and now Team Lead for regulatory compliance and environmental innovation at Rocket Lab.

It was incredibly important to us that we have speakers from Aotearoa NZ joining Dr. Rubins (NASA Kate) to showcase to our young kiwis the different career paths that can land you in the aerospace industry, and the ways you can be directly involved right on home soil. Two of our panellists (Sarah and Kiwi Kate) had both started their own journeys to becoming astronauts, while Emma only just started in aerospace a couple of years ago by chance – she was busy wanting to become an All Black and only really figured out the top end and bottom end of a rocket once she started working at Rocket Lab. Their photos very much showcased that there isn’t a specific ‘fit’ for what it takes to create a career for yourself in space, you can be sporty, arty, enjoy ‘schmoozing’, love technical problem solving, have a career for years in a parallel sector like environmental management and then find yourself being summoned for those skills to apply to environmental management at rocket launch bases and space!

With our speakers, activities, venue and decor all lined up, there was just the final hurdle… NZ weather. Things were balmy… until they weren’t. A cyclone was on its way. Not just a bit of rain, a CYCLONE.

With gusts over 60km/h on the preceding Friday, and signs it was only going to get worse, we made the call – our Evening Under the Stars extravaganza was shifting indoors into a Night in with a NASA Astronaut – featuring the same speakers, a few adapted activities, and a different, more intimate, TEDx talk vibe.

Tauranga Boys’ College came to the rescue with their venue manager, Chris, eager to help us make sure this event goes ahead as best as possible. With Rachael and Tia both on the road starting the beginning of the tour, it was down to our incredible volunteer team and a lot of prep work that meant we were able to pack-in from Tuesday morning to transform a boys’ school gymnasium into a theatre, fit to host 750 people and activities. The STEMFest community of volunteers really went above and beyond, with many of them coming earlier to help set up and Board Trustees Steven, Erin, and Amanda looking after equipment pack-in while Rachael people-wrangled.

A huge shout out to Event Production Services (NightOwl Cinema) who did some tech reshuffling to get the gear needed to make this transformation happen, as well as Tauranga Astronomical Society (TAS) and STEMFest Headline Sponsor Manawa Energy who found new activities we could run with the crowds. David and his volunteers from Tauranga Astronomical Society found themselves having lots of fun showing how gravity works with a simple fabric visualiser, while Annie and the Manawa team repurposed the rockets they were going to launch into prizes for our attendees.

And just like that, it was 6pm and we were ready to welcome in the crowds. Smiles were everywhere as people came in, grabbed themselves a STEM Wana Trust drink bottle, some popcorn and candy floss, tried the activities and found a seat to get a sneak peek of Dr. Kate Rubins doing her interview with Newshub on the stage. Before we knew it, it was time for kaumatua Tamati Tata to open the event, welcome our panellists, and begin the evening of inspirational talks.

Each speaker that took the stage shared with us their own Pathway to Space, with NASA Kate sharing her own squiggly journey from space camp through to her latest space-walks and what’s coming up next with the Artemis accord.

The panel discussion with all our speakers took a deep dive into how young kiwis can pursue a future in STEM, with a key underlying theme amongst all answers to stay curious and try a variety of things, no matter how seemingly irrelevant it is. The advice extended to parents too, to continue encouraging their kids to experience different events (like this one!), read a wide array of topics, and not be afraid to fail and learn from it. Sarah made a point of how in their lab, they often learn way more from when experiments fail than when things go correctly!

Following the discussion panel, we had a chance for Q&A with our audience, including the question that we’re sure every person has wondered… what happens to astronauts’ poop? NASA Kate was more than happy to explain it all gets sucked away into a vacuum containers, and went on to share how they eat dehydrated food and do wet towel ‘showers’ to stay clean. The Q&A wrapped up with a pretty big question, from one of our younger female attendees, “why are all the boys in my books… boys?”. After a quick panel answer of some books with leading girls [in STEM], NASA Kate took the time to look this girl in the eye and say “you know what’s going to change that though? You”.

With the evenings presentations completed, Tia took the stage to thank the team and we closed the formalities to invite people over for the Meet & Greet. In record time, we were able to get through group photos with NASA Kate, as well as a chance for attendees to meet and mingle with our other panellists. Check out the official Meet & Greet photos below.

We’ve been thanking them throughout this post already, but it’s worth another go – it takes a whole village to make a tour and an event like this happen. The passion and enthusiasm that our community and volunteers share radiates through the venue, and every event partner, Board Trustee, sponsor, and attendee that makes this sort of activation a success. We’re thankful for everyone’s generosity and support.

It was a total privilege to be able to join the STEM Wana Trust team to help bring this tour together, working with Rachael who tirelessly chaperoned our guests across the North Island for this tour while doing all the behind the scenes prep-work and organising, and of course a huge thanks to our STEMFest founder, Tia, for dreaming big and being the brains and brawn behind making this entire tour exist – taking care of the entire initiative’s experience and impact right down the detailing on each drink bottle.

We can’t wait to see what 2023 has in store after kicking off the year with such an impactful and brilliant STEM in the Community initiative. Until next time… stay curious!

Official Event PhotosPhotography: Nicholas Charles Photography

Group PhotosPhotography: Nicholas Charles Photography

Crew PhotosPhotography: Nicholas Charles Photography

Additional Event & Behind the Scenes PhotosPhotography: Paul Lush and Amit Kamble

(Please credit STEM Wana Trust/STEMFest)