The Steward School’s Visiting Innovators
program brings real-world experts to campus, providing unique educational opportunities for students, families, and the greater community. The program is an essential element of Steward’s commitment to inspiring students to take an active role in shaping the future.
Spartans recently welcomed Visiting Innovator Kevin J. DeBruin, a space science educator, former NASA engineer, and former American Ninja Warrior. A dynamic speaker, Mr. DeBruin shared NASA and space exploration’s vision for the future, meeting with students in all grade levels throughout the day and presenting a public keynote address in the afternoon. The overarching theme of the day was “The Future Of…” and touched on a wide variety of topics within that context.
Steward also welcomed guest innovators, who led breakout sessions with Middle and Upper Schoolers, each on the theme of “The Future Of…” and focusing on technology, education, manufacturing, design, engineering, history, and Richmond’s monuments.
Thank you to our guest innovators: Dr. Joe Casey (county administrator for Chesterfield County), Andrew Ilnicki (director of digital innovation, VCU da Vinci Center), Laura Earle (coordinator of middle and high school programs at The Valentine), Dr. Karla Mossi (professor and graduate program director at the VCU Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering; and mother of Dante Mossi Castle ’26), James Miller (professor of the practice at the VCU Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering), and Lexi Cleveland (executive vice president of ARtGlass US). A special thank you to our Upper School students from the Robotics, Entrepreneurship, and Leadership programs, who led talks on the future of Steward.
Emma Herzog ’24, who attended Dr. Mossi’s breakout session, said, “I was fascinated to hear about the advances in 3D printing, particularly at VCU. Dr. Mossi even brought examples like the Phantom Brain that VCU developed as part of a future treatment for Alzheimer's disease, which we were able to touch. That was a 'wow' moment for me because it's a whole new approach to neuroscience using engineering instead of medicine.”
In the Lora M. Robins Theatre, Mr. DeBruin’s presentations to Middle School and Upper School students began in characteristic Kevin J. DeBruin fashion, with an energetic leap onto the stage and a booming, “Hello, students!” Mr. DeBruin shared his educational and career trajectory, both of which were dotted with challenges, but which were ultimately rewarding. “Do the work,” he encouraged, offering advice on what to do in the face of adversity. “No matter what you want to do … anything is possible.”
Pointing to photos on a giant screen that highlighted milestones in the evolution of space exploration (from the Wright Brothers' flight to Sputnik 1 to the launch of the James Webb telescope), Mr. DeBruin asked students if they recognized them, and hands shot up. Students who answered correctly were rewarded with a round of applause and a copy of Mr. DeBruin’s book, “To NASA and Beyond.” Reflecting on the vastness of the universe and our evolving knowledge of it, he said excitedly, “When we learn new things about science … we change our perception.”
Emma, who plans to become an aerospace engineer, said, “I enjoyed meeting someone who has successfully pursued the field I would like to go into.” She added, “Mr. DeBruin noticed my hat right off the bat ... and I'm not gonna lie, I did wear my Georgia Tech hat on purpose, knowing he went there for grad school! We were able to connect immediately. I finally met someone who shares the same love for space exploration that I do. On top of that, his outgoing perspective on life inspired me to reach for the stars (literally).”
Aaliyah Ladak ’29 shared, “My favorite part of Mr. DeBruin's visit was his enthusiasm. He got us curious and excited to learn more about space, rockets, and aliens! It was also cool to learn about Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and how there’s a high chance of life living just below the ice.”
From Superheroes to Sustainable Cities
In the Bryan Innovation Lab, Mr. DeBruin talked to Lower School students about the solar system and shared fun facts about each planet. He challenged students to choose superhero names for each planet based on its characteristics. “Mercury is the fastest,” he said, adding that it travels through space at nearly 29 miles per second. “What superhero name should we give it?” The students decided on The Flash. Mars, which is red thanks to iron oxide, was renamed Ironman.
Prior to and in conjunction with Mr. DeBruin’s visit, Lower Schoolers in grades 2-5 collaborated in a “city of the future” activity by designing a city comprised of cardboard “cells.” They worked with Megan Young (Bryan Innovation Lab program specialist) and Suzanne Casey (Lower School innovation specialist) to create a model inspired by Supernature Labs, in which cities are designed like living cells. Lower Schoolers teamed up to design sustainable cities (with fewer roads and more green spaces), and each group focused on a specific topic: transportation, housing, food production, or public buildings.
When they met with Mr. DeBruin, the students proudly showed off their “cellular neighborhood,” which they had taped onto the floor of the Bryan Innovation Lab like a giant puzzle. “The children loved seeing how their mixed-use communities developed as more groups came in and added their structures to the cells,” said Ms. Casey. “It was a collaborative project that involved over 150 Lower School students. Our junior kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade students worked in pairs to make smaller versions of the cells.”
Inspiration for the Future
Brad Kovach, Bryan Innovation Lab dean, said, “It was remarkable having such a diverse group of innovators and thought-leaders in various fields sharing their vision for the future and inspiring our students to imagine what lies ahead.”