Astronaut encourages scientists of tomorrow

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — A NASA astronaut urged a group of seventh- and eighth-grade students assembled in the Liberty Middle School Library Media Center to work hard in school, stressing that the future of the U.S. space program depends on it.

Speaking as a guest of U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen on May 6, Commander Victor Glover Jr. described how committing himself to his own studies — especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, also called STEM — while still in school allowed him to become the first person in his family to graduate college, embark on a successful career as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, work as a staff member for Sen. John McCain and eventually join NASA, where he recently completed his astronaut candidate training.

And Glover told his audience, which consisted of approximately 40 seventh-grade honors social studies students and 27 eighth-graders in the after school STEM club, that they too can follow a similar path if they take their studies seriously. If they do not, he said there is no guarantee there will be much of a space program, if there are no people in place to support it.

“NASA does amazing things, but we won’t without you,” Glover told the students. “We need you, really, because we need you to grow up and become engineers and scientists and astronauts and financial managers and accountants and presidents who understand what our mission is.”

But becoming an astronaut like Glover is easier said than done, so the commander advised the students to develop a few characteristics that will benefit them no matter what occupation they decide take up in the future. First, he said they should always work hard and be persistent in working toward their goals. Undoubtedly they will face struggles — Glover mentioned having to read through an entire textbook several inches thick over less than one semester in his first year of college — but he said those will only help them in the long run.

“You need to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Glover said. “That’s where growth comes from.”

Glover next told the students that they should be lifelong learners. Though studying STEM and picking up a foreign language will certainly help if becoming an astronaut is their goal, he said every subject will prepare them for the future. No matter what classes they take, he said they should review everything repeatedly to ensure that the information stays in their minds. Also, he said they should always listen to mentors, such as parents or teachers, who can guide them.

Lastly, Glover advised the students that they should strive to be good people. That means respecting everyone around them, he said, and thinking how their actions will reflect on others. He said he considers how his mother and grandmother would feel about a decision before taking any course of action. Students should also attach themselves to something larger than themselves, like a cause that benefits their community, he said.

Glover guaranteed that students who take his advice will have bright futures — even if they do not know what they want to do for a career yet. Speaking with the West Orange Chronicle prior to his presentation, he said today’s youth have all the tools to shape tomorrow’s world for the better. They just need to apply themselves if they want to make a difference, he said.

“I just want to encourage them to get out there and to grab (the future) with both hands and to do all they can and to challenge themselves,” Glover said. “We’re not going to get to Mars without these very kids. So I just want to tell them that I believe in them, and we need them.

“And I think that makes it a little different when you’re doing your homework and you’re thinking about ‘Man, my country needs me,’ not just ‘I have to turn this in,’” he added.

Frelinghuysen believes someone of Glover’s stature speaking to the students can make a difference. That is why the congressman has been bringing astronauts, including West Orange native Mark Kelly, to elementary and middle schools in his legislative district for roughly a dozen years. By doing so, he said he hopes students will get the message that STEM learning can take them to great heights.

“I think it raises the level of excitement about math and science,” Frelinghuysen told the Chronicle before Glover’s speech. “We want to capture this excitement before they go off to high school and become too ‘sophisticated.’”

LMS Principal Robert Klemt agreed that middle school is the perfect time to instill passions in students because they are still developing their interests. And bringing in professionals to talk about their fields is an excellent way to inspire young people to think about following in their footsteps, Klemt said. In fact, LMS has a long history of hosting guest speakers, including two past Miss New Jersey winners, numerous authors and Frelinghuysen himself.

Having Glover speak was particularly exciting because LMS is currently working to expand its STEM program, Klemt said. The principal explained that its after school STEM club, which encourages problem-solving through the use of Lego Mindstorms robotics kits, has become quite popular in the two years since it was established. And he said the school is also in the process of incorporating the Next Generation Science Standards, which place a greater emphasis on technology and engineering, into the classroom. As a result, the principal said students will be able to hone their problem-solving skills in a way that a basic science or math curriculum never could.

“We’re putting more into the students’ hands as far as designing a solution,” Klemt told the Chronicle before Glover addressed the students. “In the past you could do a lab, but everything was worked out for you. You followed A, then you go to B. But now these kids are figuring out the hypothesis and then A through Z.”

Photos by Sean Quinn