Even as uncertainty looms over the future of U.S. space exploration, NASA staff was in Orlando on Saturday, encouraging children to embrace science, math and technology.

NASA educators teamed with University of Central Florida students to entice future astronauts, engineers and scientists with activities such as observing stars in an inflatable planetarium, launching stomp rockets and exploring a “robonaut” — a robot that looks like a person.

Ryan Daniels, 10, of Cocoa was elated to glide across a room on a hovercraft — made of a leaf blower and plywood. Ryan doesn’t want to be an astronaut. He is certain he will be a meteorologist.

“He’s a big weather buff,” said April Daniels, an education major at UCF and Ryan’s mother.

Her son, who has autism, knows more about hurricanes, tornadoes and precipitation than most. During a “Gee Whiz Show,” where he learned about air pressure and space food, he pointed out to NASA staff the areas Hurricane Katrina hit before slamming New Orleans. He picked up an interest in weather after a series of storms swept across Brevard County in 2006, his mother said.

She was pleased Saturday’s activities catered to children with special needs. “Often, they get overlooked. A lot of people assume kids with special needs will not be interested in science and math,” she said.

Sara Aronin, who works at NASA’s Educator Resource Center, agreed that people underestimate the intelligence of children with special needs. Yet, she said, some of the greatest thinkers had a disability.

“Einstein was kicked out of a school because he couldn’t do math. Einstein, today, would have been diagnosed with a learning disability,” said Aronin, who teaches at the UCF College of Education.

She thinks it is crucial schools and society invest on education in math, science and technology, even if NASA is winding down its space-shuttle program.

“We’re having the national brain-drain. Our baby boomers are retiring and we don’t have people to fill those positions,” she said. The federal agency does more than send Americans into space. “NASA is helping with the clean-up of BP,” she said.

As a child, Jessica Delgado, 21, a UCF elementary-education major, did not have an appetite for math and science. She recently attended a two-week workshop for future teachers at the Kennedy Space Center. She participated in activities similar to those conducted Saturday, which she said sparked a new appreciation for the sciences.

Unfortunately, national interest in space exploration, Aronin said, hasn’t dwindled after Neil Armstrong and his crew landed on the moon four decades ago. Fewer kids dream of being astronauts today, she said.

But Madeline Lucyshyn, 6, of Winter Park, does. “I want to go see the moon,” she said.

The girl attended with her three siblings and mother, Jessica Lucyshyn, a civil engineer. Her mother said she hopes the government will preserve its space program for future generations and, perhaps, allow her daughter to take flight.

“Time will tell. Hopefully, they’ll find the right solution,” she said.

NASA plans to hold a similar event at UCF in September.

Source: OrlandoSentinel.com, NASA teaches children to embrace science, by Eloísa Ruano González, Orlando Sentinel, 7:19 PM EDT, July 10, 2010.

Eloísa Ruano González can be reached at egonzalez@orlandosentinel.com or 407-650-6673.