A former astronaut and a potential future astronaut joined a rocket engineer Thursday to check on 200 teachers learning how to improve their craft, particularly in areas of science and math.
Bernard Harris, Alyssa Carson and Renee Horton visited several classrooms at Live Oak High School in Watson and finished the day with a panel discussion, moderated by Liz Smith, a senior vice president with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
Harris, who twice traveled on the space shuttle and has visited Baton Rouge several times before, is the chief executive officer of the National Math and Science Initiative, or NMSI.
The Dallas-based organization put together the annual training camp, which is part of an NMSI program known as Laying The Foundation.
Harris said he used to say that a strong knowledge of science and math education — often called STEM, short for science, technology, engineering and math — would be necessary in nine out of 10 jobs. But he’s since upped that estimate.
“We are in the 21st century and it’s my opinion that 10 out of 10 jobs require expertise in math and science,” Harris said. “When you decide what to do in life, you need to have a level of understanding of science, technology and mathematics.”
NMSI’s work in Louisiana is funded through a $13 million grant from ExxonMobil that continues through 2025. Another big part of the grant is known as the College Readiness Program, which is credited with increasing the number of high school students in the state who take and pass college-level Advanced Placement courses in math, science and English.
Students in 19 schools and six Louisiana school districts currently participate. The grant funds schools for three-years of expansion in their AP programs. Live Oaks High is entering its third year in the program.
Thursday’s visitors at Live Oak High credited their own teachers for helping them get to where they are today.
Horton, who is from Baton Rouge and later graduated from LSU, said her career path to NASA, where she works as a rocket engineer, was set in motion in part by an eighth-grade teacher who she said looked like a member of the band ZZ Top. She said he told all his students that “I want all of you to be great.”
Despite what she’s achieved, she said, she is often alone as an African-American woman in her field. She urged the teachers to encourage more students into STEM fields like hers.
“It is my goal to change the face of STEM,” Horton said.
Carson mostly spoke about her story. This 18-year-old graduate of Baton Rouge International School has participated in multiple NASA space camps and is training with the goal of becoming the first human on Mars.
She recalled her dad telling the already space-crazy kid that she could become an astronaut some day: “He probably shouldn’t have told me because I’m here and I’m still going after it,” Carson said.