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Tiger Talk: An amazing opportunity - NASA chose PR-B students to talk to astronauts

Expedition 53 crew members: Joe Acaba of NASA, Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos, and Mark Vande Hei of NASA pose for a photograph for the press outside the Soyuz simulator ahead of their Soyuz qualification exams, Thurs., Aug. 31, 2017, at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. The three are scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:17 p.m. on Tues., Sept. 12, 2017 aboard the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

What did you want to be when you were a kid? A firefighter? A baseball player? A princess?

Growing up in the '80s, the common themes rotating among my four siblings and I were: race car driver (inspired, of course, by "The Dukes of Hazzard"), a Jedi (no explanation necessary) and an astronaut (because what kid hasn't wanted to be one at some point in their life?).

As I grew older, my viable career options began to hold a near-mythic status, eventually giving way to the more mundane dreams of Peace Corps volunteer, Greenpeace or marine biologist.

In case you're wondering, I did find a career path that feels like a dream, working as an educator here at Pine River-Backus Elementary School.

I find myself telling my students, who have had similar aspirations, that while it feels like becoming an astronaut is just about as likely as becoming a Jedi, the odds are slightly better (an applicant today has a .6 percent chance).

I tell them that even though their dream is exceedingly difficult, it is not impossible.

"You are smart enough to do it." "You are going to do amazing things when you grow up."

These are the words that teachers are telling their students in every classroom at PR-B. All of this is being said, of course, with the disclaimer that they must thank their teacher when they write that novel, climb that mountain or win that prestigious award.

In living rooms across the country, we're all striving to teach our children to believe in their dreams. Not because we want them to become astronauts or race car drivers. We're telling them we believe in their dreams because to our children, that translates to "I believe in you."

If kids believe that, they can grow up to do extraordinary things.

Two such people, American heroes Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei, who once sat in classrooms just like our students, have defied the odds. If being a NASA astronaut wasn't extraordinary enough (remember .6 percent), they are part of the elite team working and living aboard the International Space Station, currently orbiting 254 miles above the Earth.

How did they get there? How did they beat the odds? How can we instill in our own children the grit and determination not to give up when everyone else has? We can ask them. Or even better, our children can ask them.

It would seem unlikely, wouldn't it, for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station to stop their important work to answer our kids' questions, to Skype with our students, here in this small school, in this rural town in Minnesota? It would seem ridiculous to ask two astronauts, whose time aboard the ISS is so rigorously scheduled, to each take 20 minutes for our school.

It would seem impossible, but there was a chance, which meant a possibility. I discovered that NASA actually does this very thing for a very select few organizations. Only four to 14 "sites" in the entire nation are chosen to participate in this "In-Flight Downlink."

Somehow, we have to feel proud. We beat the odds.

On Sept. 18, above all those other schools and organizations, we were chosen to Skype with Bresnik and Vande Hei while they are aboard the International Space Station. This event will be broadcast live on NASA TV and later YouTube.

Leading up to the event, children throughout the district were encouraged to apply for this amazing opportunity by submitting a question. All-calls went out over the phone, posters were hung in area businesses, information was available during the school's open house event, and the district website has advertised the Downlink and provided links to the astronauts' bios as well as a place to submit a question.

The way that we respond to this experience, as a community, will directly correlate to the impact this has on the kids. If we show that this is important, it gains meaning. Because of this, local organizations have invested their time and energy into coming to the school as a show of support during the Downlink, as well as hosting an interactive exhibit as part of a "Post-Downlink" STEAM Fair.

Students can expect to see interactive exhibits from Pequot Tool and Manufacturing, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, Hunt Utilities Group, National Joint Powers Alliance, Tech Mobile and more.

"You were chosen," I tell my students, whether you get to stand up there and ask your question or not. Out of the nearly 60 million students who are going to school all over the United States, NASA chose to focus on the 974 kids that call Pine River-Backus home.

"You matter," is the message. If you have a dream, even if you only have a .6 percent chance in getting there, don't give up ... unless, of course, your dream is becoming a Jedi.

If you would like to show your support for this amazing event and our students, or have questions, please contact Robbi Gregory at rgregory@prbschools.org.

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