By Ricky Arnold
An unexpected thunderstorm during my ninth-grade Earth science class led me to an equally unexpected career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, and then to NASA.
It was a pretty typical classroom: alphabetically-paired students working at black lab tables and the teacher managing a multitude of tasks at a large multi-functional table that spanned the front of the room. To the right of the blackboard was the dreaded green erasable weather map on which each student spent a week nervously forecasting the daily weather (each of us hoping for five days of blessed, predictable high pressure). One day, following a forecast assuring absolutely no chance of rain, we moved on to the seemingly less-than-dynamic topic of rock formation.
As my teacher guided us through our rock specimens and gleefully pointed out the feldspar, quartz, and mica indicative of a granitic rock, the sky darkened in the windows just behind my desk. A brilliant flash of lightning was immediately followed by a jarring clap of thunder. Most of us jumped.
Mr. Replane instantly let a beautiful piece of granite fall to the floor and was scavenging some stopwatches from the bowels of a nearby cabinet. Within minutes, he had us calculating the distance of the lightning strikes from the window where we now pressed our faces. The math confirmed what we all suspected: Some of the lightning struck very near the baseball fields right behind our classroom.
I was just a typical teen at the time, completely oblivious to the fact that someone had managed to sneak a combined algebra/physics/meteorology exercise by me because I—like the rest of my class —was too caught up in the excitement to notice. However, the single most excited person in that classroom was without a doubt my teacher. His enthusiasm for learning still motivates me and certainly inspired my time in the classroom. Where else was I going to find a job in which I got paid to learn?
In addition, I was learning alongside some of the most inquisitive and open minds that human beings have to offer—middle schoolers. As a teacher, I strove to capture the spirit of wide-eyed discovery that Mr. Replane shared with me at Samuel Ogle Junior High School. I hope I passed that along to some of the students whom I had the honor to teach.
I know this may sound like a selfish rationale for becoming a STEM teacher, but I also had more strategic reasons for becoming a STEM teacher.
First, STEM is where the jobs are. If I want to give a kid a hand up or push forward, I can offer no better tool than the opportunity to enter a field in which dynamic and well-paying jobs can be found. Additionally, for those wishing to explore this career field further, NASA and many big engineering companies offer exciting internships in which students work side-by-side with scientists, engineers, and researchers on real projects that help us understand the complexities of spaceflight and aviation.
Second, but equally important, the only way we are going to address the very real issues that this planet is collectively facing is with a scientifically literate public. Sadly, this is a very real problem in the country that landed the first humans on the Moon. The only way to address it is through education.
Despite the constraints of curriculum, seemingly endless paperwork, and real hardships many kids face daily, as teachers we have the very unique privilege to share with our students our passion for STEM fields. As I and many of Mr. Replane’s other former students can attest, nothing is more contagious than a teacher’s enthusiasm for what he/she is doing. This spark, once lit, is the mechanism with which we can help our students develop the critically needed tools required for economic empowerment and enlightened civic involvement. This is why teaching STEM is so critical, and so special.
Meanwhile, I need to return to studying the communication system on the International Space Station, and I still have a lot to learn. Thankfully, learning has been my joy, not a job.
Mr. Replane, if you happen to read this, e-mail your phone number to Jscemail@example.com, and I’ll call you from space to thank you. The STEM career that you and many other teachers inspired me to pursue has taken me to some pretty remarkable places.
Ricky Arnold was a middle and high school science and mathematics teacher for 15 years. He joined NASA in 2004 and has conducted research both undersea, underground, and in outer space. He is scheduled to return to the International Space Station in March 2018. With Arnold’s mission and that of astronaut and former teacher Joe Acaba before it, NASA is celebrating a “Year of Education on Station,” with an unprecedented number of educational outreach activities and resources available. Visit https://goo.gl/KXnyiB to learn more about this unique opportunity to stimulate students’ interest in STEM subjects.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.