The first thing that Mae Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut, saw through the window of the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992 was her hometown of Chicago.

"I thought about that little girl who grew up wanting to go into space," she said. "And so, the first thing to happen to me there was this huge smile."

She wore that smile Tuesday morning into the gym of Kearny School at Sixth Street and Fairmount Avenue, where - greeted by children wearing neon construction-paper crowns dotted with stickers of spaceships and stars - she spoke about her experiences as an astronaut and her belief that "daring makes a difference."

The K-8 school got Jemison to visit through the "Win a Day with Dr. Mae" contest hosted by Bayer Corp., which sponsors initiatives to increase science literacy. Kearny, whose students come from low-income families, beat out over 50 other public, private, and charter schools in Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties and Philadelphia.

Daniel Kurtz, the school's principal, said the visit was an important moment for the school.

"I actually get a little choked up," he said. "This day is going to change the life of at least one of these kids. Someone in this room is going to be a scientist or an astronaut or a mathematician because of this. It just gives me the chills."

Jemison talked to students grouped by age, then led them through a series of experiments, such as inserting a wooden skewer into a balloon and creating optical illusions.

"It's always exciting to share with students things that they want to know about, and space is one of them," she said. "Kids like to do hands-on things, they like to be part of the experience. My excitement here is to be able to share with them the world around them, and to make it OK for them to experiment and explore."

Mayor Nutter stopped by to participate in experiments and talk with Jemison.

"She's a lady of great accomplishment," he said. "She could go anywhere around the country or in the world. She decided to come to Kearny."

"Science, technology, engineering, and math are critical in every career you will go into," the mayor stressed to an auditorium of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. "If you set your sights high - and literally, for some, as high as the stars - you can do anything you want."

He eased a skewer into a balloon, and chuckled contentedly.

For Azaela Derrickson, a 9-year-old who wants to become a scientist, meeting Jemison was an eye-opening experience.

"She brought us closer to science," she said.

Her friend Daisia Rogers, 10, agreed.

"She wants you to be more focused on what you want to come ahead, but she also doesn't want you to be fully focused," she said. "She wants you to be a dreamer, too."

215-854-2771 @danilyst