Let me tell you what happened, said Cary Garrett, associate flight director at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Challenger STEM Learning Center.
"The weather people have found that there is an asteroid going toward the Martian surface. But we're going toward the Martian surface. So we need to find another way," he told the group of students from Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy gathered around him.
He gestured toward different screens and controls, modeled after real space command tools, dressed in a bright blue jumpsuit.
"Get back to work!" he encouraged as the girls rushed back to their stations.
The group of ninth-grade students was participating in a daylong workshop at the Challenger Center, which has been providing hands-on experiments and activities to students in the region for almost three decades.
The students from the all-girls public charter school also heard from college students from UTC's College of Engineering and Computer Science, UTC faculty, members of the Society of Women Engineers and a particularly special guest via video conference: retired astronaut Eileen Collins.
In 1995, Collins became the first woman to pilot and command a space shuttle. She's flown four missions for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and was one of the first women trained to be a pilot by the United States Air Force.
Collins talked about her experiences in space and what the Earth looked like from so far away, but mostly she talked about what most of the adults at the Challenger Center on Thursday talked to the girls about: finding their passion and considering a career in STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — fields.
"Don't limit yourself. Don't cut yourself short and say 'I'm not good enough' to do that," Collins told the students.
Perry Storey, director of the Challenger Center, said exposing students to all sorts of possibilities is what the center is all about.
"One thing we stress, especially to young women, is that there are a lot of opportunities to continue their experience in college and in the future," Storey said.
UTC's Challenger Center is one of almost 50 space-themed learning centers established in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Korea to commemorate the Challenger "Teacher in Space" flight that ended on Jan. 28, 1986, when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
June Scobee Rodgers, founding chairwoman of the Challenger Centers and wife of the late Dick Scobee — an astronaut who was killed in the Challenger disaster — spearheaded the effort to establish a center in Chattanooga. Their daughter, Kathie Scobee Fulgham, joined Thursday's event.
"It's really important what's being done here, firing up the young minds of children about what they can be," Fulgham said. "What they can get here is a taste of different things. They can envision themselves all doing these types of experiments or working on projects."
"It makes my heart swell to see how much they are engineering themselves and learning," she added.
Only about 17% of UTC's engineering and computer science students are women, according to Julie David, director of student success the college.
How she made her way in a male-dominated field is one of the questions that CGLA students asked Collins during their video chat Thursday.
Collins said she enjoyed it, but also emphasized that girls should have confidence in themselves.
"The way I dealt with that is I just focused on my job and being the best pilot I could be," Collins said. "And remember, you're part of a team. Be confidence in yourself. Be curious."
Ninth grader Yesenia Pablo Rafael said she is interested in biomedical or mechanical engineering, but at first she wasn't sure if she'd be uncomfortable as a woman if the jobs were filled mostly by men. She was excited to hear from so many female engineers and college students Friday.
"It's very inspiring. Men are everywhere, men have always had the control," she said. "I asked myself, 'Oh no, should I do this? Will I be humiliated?' When I see that they need women and there are so many women, I feel like I can do it."
CGLA is intentional in its effort to expose its girls, who are mostly students from some of Chattanooga's most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, to opportunities in STEM, school officials said.
Lulu Copeland, the executive director of economic and workforce development at Chattanooga State Community College, is also one of CGLA's board members. She spent the first part of her career working as an engineer for TVA.
"At the middle school and even the high school level, you don't really know what your career path will look like. That's why exposure is so important, Copeland said. "These girls will see that there is a pathway for them."
Collins also gave the students some practical advice for their next steps.
"Focus on your strengths. ... your classes should be your focus. They are supposed to be hard. They are designed to challenge you. Be active in a church activity or a community activity so you are working with other people and building leadership skills," Collins said. "But also don't get over involved. Take time for yourself."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.