Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation constructing Innovation and Technology Exploration Center at Big Oak Park just south of Smyrna.

The new Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation building near Smyrna isn’t finished yet, but the foundation’s educational programs are already helping local students, while the plans for the future could help the local economy, too.

While the interior of the Innovation and Technology Exploration Center (ITEC) is still under construction, foundation president Dr. Stephanie Wright can describe her vision for the interior so vividly that dinosaurs and planets start to emerge from the concrete and steel.

“We’re going to keep the first floor open so it can be fluid, with changing exhibits, so it’s not the same thing every time,” said Wright. “We’ve got a life-sized inflatable dinosaur that would be great to put near the entrance as the children walk in, but then, three months later when the students come back, we can have an ocean exhibit with a life-sized inflatable whale or a space exhibit. We do everything from dinosaurs to space.”

Wright, who founded the Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation (DASEF), exhibits boundless enthusiasm but possesses endless patience.

Since DASEF was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1990, progress has been slow but steady, starting with educational programs and day camps, then the opening of the 2,300 square-foot Environmental Outpost featuring classroom space and an observatory with a telescope at Kent County’s Big Oak Park just south of Smyrna in 2007.

About seven years ago at the park, the foundation started construction on the 40,000 square-foot Innovation and Technology Exploration Center (ITEC) which will house exhibits, classrooms, and a dormitory for overnight stays or week-long science camps. The building features a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar-powered electricity, a green roof with plantings, and a rainwater collection system.

While donations for the ITEC building haven’t been rolling in as fast as Wright hoped, her enthusiasm for the project remains high.

“To be this far along and not a penny in debt is amazing,” Wright said, explaining that the foundation has always followed the plan of raising the funds for a project before starting that project –and not taking out loans.

The first DASEF building, the Environmental Outpost, cost $4.5 million, but was completely paid for each step of the way.

“The Outpost is continually booked throughout the year,” said Wright. “We urgently need more educational space.”

The ITEC building will provide that space.

“Our immediate focus is on funding the first stage of the building interior fit-out,” said Wright.

That includes mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems and six ground floor classrooms. The projected cost for this stage is $2,599,270, she said. The total cost of the building will be about $7.8 million.

“With it, we will be able to reach annually over 40,000 students, 800 teachers, and 1,500 families each year,” Wright said.

Benefits for the Smyrna-Clayton area

Students in the Smyrna-Clayton area have already taken part in DASEF programs, both at the Environmental Outpost and from visits by DASEF staff for educational programs at the Smyrna Public Library and the Boys & Girls Club.

Trisha Moses, executive director of the Greater Smyrna Clayton Boys & Girls Club, said DASEF partnered with the club under the 21st Century Educational Grant to set up programs in science, math, and the environment for seventh, eighth, and ninth graders. Some programs were offered at the Environmental Outpost, and some programs were held at the club.

“I think it helped students retain knowledge during the summer in science and math, which is something all teachers and educators strive for, to make sure students are involved in some type of academic skills-based program during the summer,” said Moses. “The kids loved it. It was tons of fun, always hands-on, very engaging and innovative. They used lots of technology.”

At a June DASEF event hosted by the Smyrna Public Library, DASEF educator Lynda Rae Gannon based her presentation on this year’s Summer Reading Program theme: “Every Hero Has a Story.” A discussion with students about heroes led to astronauts, followed by hands-on activities such as creating an astronaut badge with examples from all the NASA space missions, making and flying a paper helicopter, and creating an astronaut helmet out of a paper bag and a sheet of clear plastic.

“We try to give students activities where they can take a base idea and run with it, and use their creativity,” said Gannon. “These activities lead to more exploration.”

Smyrna Library children’s program director Kriss Mera agreed.

“These are hands-on, science-based activities. The children have a wonderful time,” said Mera. “Then they come to the library and they’re more interested in books on those subjects – in the sciences and biographies.”

What do children think about the program?

“I like it because you get to do hands-on, actual activities,” said Geoffrey Spence, 12. “I like learning about space. It’s interesting learning about planets.”

Britney Maykut, 11, said the DASEF program was “interesting.”

“I liked making the space helmet, and I had never seen the astronaut badges before,” Maykut said.

She was also inspired.

“I would like to go to the moon someday,” she said.

One of the parents at the program, Jennifer Wightman, said the DASEF presentation was both fun and educational.

“My kids love science and they’re always excited to get out of the house and come to programs like this,” said Wightman. “With all the great materials they have, it’s an experience you can’t get at home.”

Kent County Levy Court President Brooks Banta (D – Smyrna) said the new DASEF building will not only improve the educational offerings in northern Kent County, but it will also help the economy.

“The DASEF programs at Big Oak Park certainly serve a tremendous void in helping young people learn about space exploration and science,” said Banta. “It’s amazing what they do in their weekend programs and day camps. The interest at that level by the children is so intense, and parents I’ve spoken to have been impressed as well.”

Banta said while the completion of the new ITEC facility will take some time, the building should have multiple benefits for businesses in the area.

“The building will house young people for weekend stays, and many of their moms and dads might stay in nearby hotels. They’ll use restaurants and gas stations, and shop at our stores,” said Banta. “I know when my daughter takes her son to a weekend soccer tournament, they sometimes spend $500 during the weekend with the hotel and meals and the other places they visit during the tournament.”

Banta said an educational destination could spur similar results.

Along with visits by children and parents, teachers will also be visiting the ITEC building for conferences and training, again with the possibility of eating at local restaurants and shopping at other stores while they’re in the area.

“The economic impact for Kent County could be tremendous,” he said.

HOW TO HELP

For information on making a donation to the Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation, individuals and business leaders can see the “donate” page on the foundation’s website, dasef.org.