To the students participating in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math conference at the University College of the Cayman Islands, here is the crucial takeaway: Not only is the sky not falling — but education and progress are opening up entirely new vistas for future exploration.

Keynote speaker Dave Lavery is a living example of that ideal. Mr. Lavery’s official title is “NASA Program Executive for Solar System Exploration,” but his job description is even more compelling. A robotics expert, Mr. Lavery is responsible for current and future missions to explore the surface of the planet Mars.

Speaking in the context of U.S. President Barack Obama’s challenge to send humans to Mars (and back) during the next 15-25 years, Mr. Lavery said the barriers would be financial, rather than technological, and that such a mission would necessitate cooperation among several countries … as opposed to the original “Space Race” paradigm pitting the Americans against the Soviets.

While Mr. Lavery’s professional background is exceptional, he does have one trait in common with local educators, such as Clifton Hunter High School STEM head Tiyen Miller and UCCI President Roy Bodden, namely, a passion to inspire students to engage in the pursuit of knowledge in the fields of science and technology.

Mr. Lavery said, “I think the best question I had was from a young student yesterday who asked what he had to do to get hired by NASA and go to Mars, so somebody was definitely engaged.”

Mr. Bodden said, “The main focus of this event is to inspire young minds. We want to get them interested and involved in STEM, which is going to change the way we live and work in the future.”

Moving to Mars, of course, would certainly constitute a “lifestyle change.” And, if you believe Mr. Lavery and other experts, it’s a possibility that could very well become reality in the lifetime of the current generation of schoolchildren.

But you don’t have to leave the planet physically (or even send a robot) to unlock new worlds and loftier planes of existence. It’s as simple, really, as cracking open a book (or better yet, many books) and nourishing your imagination. It is beyond question that the life of someone who reads — or speaking more broadly, someone who constantly learns — is far, far richer than the life of someone who doesn’t.

On a more practical note, perhaps, immersing students in the possibilities of careers in STEM fields is significant for the basic reason that it makes those careers seem to be within reach. Local officials, personages and thought leaders often comment on the need for Cayman, as a country, to develop other economically viable industries in addition to tourism and financial services. That’s a valid and even vital quest.

But of greater importance, on the individual level, is the need for Cayman’s students to understand there exists a myriad of professions, vocations and careers not related to tourism, financial services or any industry currently on-island … and that those sectors do not even have to be in Cayman in order for those students to excel in them. Our students must be encouraged to capitalize on their talents and chase their dreams — and must never feel bound to Cayman’s 102 square miles of ironshore, sand and soil.

Out there, beyond our borders, is a brave new world. Beyond that, the universe.