A former NASA astronaut says seeing students learn science, technology and math is as awe-inspiring as galactic space travel.
When I think about giving back to the community, what comes to mind is making a positive impact on someone else’s life. We never really know just how far our words of encouragement or our actions may take someone, maybe even to space.
This concept is never more evident to me than when I share my experiences of being an astronaut on the International Space Station, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour orbiting our serenely beautiful planet every 90 minutes. I’ve been told that hearing my stories about space, perseverance, and dedication is inspirational, and it makes me think of my life's journey and what inspired me.
My mother and father, who were both middle school educators, instilled in me the value of a solid education, as well as a spirit of curiosity and innovation. They also showed by example the importance of giving back to others and making a positive impact in the community. Two unforgettable experiences during my childhood were instrumental in fueling my passion for STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The first was a memorable “explosion” I created in my mother’s living room with a chemistry set she had given me when I was in elementary school. I was completely fascinated by my fiery laboratory experiment, although my mother was less than thrilled with the scorch marks on her rug. That one ”ah-ha moment” spurred me to major in chemistry at the University of Richmond.
Another formative experience from my childhood was helping my father transform a bread truck into an RV that our family used during summer vacations. My father’s vision for this project — and helping him actually bring it to fruition — taught me basic mechanical and electrical engineering skills. It also opened up a world of exploration and discovery as we traveled the country in our bread truck camper.
Realizing how those experiences sparked my interest in science, I embarked on a journey that would enable me to combine my scientific and engineering background with my desire to help young minds realize their full potential.
Since becoming the head of education at NASA and member of the White House Committee on STEM Education, I’ve been privileged to help others, especially students, realize their passion — just as someone did for me as a young, curious learner many years ago.
I often do speaking engagements relating my astronaut experiences to STEM education and what can come of it. Seeing the awe and wonder on students’ faces during these events has been the most rewarding achievement in my career. One of the most incredible moments for me as a new astronaut was while talking to a group of Black students at a NASA summer program. During my presentation, some students arrived late. Half of them fell asleep while I was talking about medical doctor and astronaut Bernard Harris, who was the first African-American to walk in space. One young girl woke up, looked at the picture of him floating in space and realized: “Wow, that’s a brother.” Then she fell back asleep. Years later at an event in California, that same girl walked up to me and said, “Mr. Melvin, I fell asleep during your presentation five years ago at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I heard you talk about Dr. Harris, who was the first African-American to do a space walk. That so inspired me that I’m now going to medical school.” You just never know — what seems like an insignificant moment can be the spark that unleashes a lifelong passion or career. Maybe even one that saves a life. That is powerful.
Leland Melvin is the NASA associate administrator for education and is responsible for the development and implementation of the agency's education programs. Prior to that he served as a mission specialist operating the robotic arm on two space shuttle missions to the International Space Station. Click here for more information about NASA Programs and resources.
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(Photo: Earl Gibson III)