The world was united, perhaps for the first time in history. As I sat in front of my grandmother’s black and white television, I was forced to watch the event—every station carried it live, all four of them. But it was in that moment, the instant Neil Armstrong’s boot hit the Moon’s surface, I knew without a doubt what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wasn’t alone, as most children my age wanted the same thing: to become an astronaut.
The passion created by that event stuck with me, and I was completely hooked. So much so that when I was eight, I racked up an enormous telephone bill working through four operator assists to call NASA at Kennedy Space Center during primetime long distance hours in order to ask for “space stuff” (the public affairs person was very nice and sent me a box of photos and literature).
After doing the research I realized that to be an astronaut during the Apollo era I had to become both an engineer and military fighter pilot. Everything I did thereafter was to achieve those ends, whether it was learning basic electronics through Radio Shack 101 experiment kits, taking classes to receive my HAM radio license with my grandfather, Elmer, or participating in school clubs focused on electronics, drafting, and other industrial arts.
I read an issue of Popular Electronics in 1976 that featured some basic plans on how to build your own computer based on a new RCA microprocessor. At the time, there was no such thing as a personal computer, so the prospect of building my own computer was very exciting to me. I used money I had saved to buy many of the parts from Radio Shack, but I had two problems: not enough money to purchase the expensive microprocessor and very limited knowledge of electronics.
The original issue of Popular Electronics.
What I had was a neighbor, Bill, who was an electronics technician. I then did what any passionate kid my age would have done. I asked, or more accurately nagged, Bill for his help—something he graciously gave me. He even used his connections to secure free samples of the microprocessor and other components. I learned a lot from Bill. Despite being very busy, he was always there to help.
While in high school, I took the knowledge I had gained and asked Hal, the CEO of Archives, Inc., Iowa’s only computer manufacturer, for an internship so I could learn even more. I spent a couple of years working as an intern in the research and development department working with the lead design engineer, Bob. He not only taught me about Archives’ systems, he often helped with my personal computer projects, which by that time had gotten complicated for a 17 year-old.
My version of The COSMAC "ELF".
I had a high school industrial arts teacher, William, who was very supportive and always available, even after hours at home, to help me cut and fabricate the materials necessary to build the cases to hold my computer creations.
Of course, my father, Don, was the most supportive person in my life. He always helped me prepare for my many science fairs and industrial arts expos by providing tools, constructing booth materials, and hauling me across the state to each and every event.
All of this, combined with my willingness to work hard in school, landed me a full Air Force ROTC scholarship and an opportunity to represent the U.S. in the international science fair. Everything was right on schedule and going according to plan…until it wasn’t. While I received a great education, served in the Air Force, and worked in the private sector to support some of the latest aerospace-related equipment, I never reached my goal of becoming an astronaut. Like most plans in life, things changed.
However, those first lunar steps were instrumental in launching me towards a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). While Apollo was the “wow” factor that inspired me, I was only successful because of the support and mentoring I received along the way from people who were committed to helping me succeed, like my grandfather, Elmer; my neighbor, Bill; my bosses Hal and Bob; my teacher, William; and of course my father, Don.
Psychologists suggest that when a person’s behavior is reinforced, it’s more likely that it will occur again. They have discovered a powerful link between what we’re exposed to as children and the choices we make later as we enter adulthood. It’s no surprise then that the interests and career I have today can be traced back to my childhood when, after being inspired by the “wow” of the Moon landings, my interests were reinforced almost daily by those around me.
What’s reinforced today? Sports. The last time I checked, there weren’t many pep rallies, booster clubs, cheerleaders, decorated lockers, bleachers full of cheering fans, or trophy cases adorning the halls in support of STEM-related activities in schools. I love sports as much as the next person. I participated in sports throughout my childhood, and they taught me valuable lessons related to leadership, teamwork, work ethic, and overcoming failure. The difference was that I took part in sports for fun, and If I’m being honest, to fit in.
Reinforcement shapes people’s priorities, and our priorities have changed. The United States has always had a strong tradition of scientific innovation, such as the Apollo Program and the Internet. However, it has seen rapid declines in patent filings compared to other countries. China has outstripped both the U.S. and Europe in numbers of graduate students. China has almost 5 million graduate students in STEM, compared to a little over a half-million in the U.S. In light of these numbers, it’s easy to become concerned about the future.
To quote the Smithsonian, “Four billion people on the planet use a mobile phone, while 3.5 billion people use a toothbrush. In the past two years, 90 percent of all of the world’s data has been generated. NASA plans to set foot on Mars in the next 20 years, and driverless cars are already being tested in Europe. The future is here, and it requires a citizenry fluent in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).” However, “78 percent of high school graduates don’t meet benchmark readiness for one or more college courses in math, science, reading or English,” and “over 2.4 million good-paying STEM jobs are projected to go unfilled this year.”
In 2015, the late Gene Cernan (Gemini 9, Apollo 10 and 17) said to me, “there’s nothing big to stimulate the passion of young kids in this country today. I’ve had fifty- and sixty-year-old people say, ‘Gene, thank you for what you did. I’m an engineer, a teacher, a scientist because of Apollo.’ We need to rejuvenate that.” However, there are many ways to encourage an interest in STEM at a young age. Children naturally crave discovery and exploration. They love to construct things and interact with the world around them, whether through the Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and Tinker Toys of my childhood or Legos and VR-based computer simulations today. Restoring the passion for STEM today, though, will require something greater than a “wow” event.
Gerry Griffin, former Apollo Flight Director says, “Start them young and don’t let up! We
need to make STEM topics fun for kids in elementary and middle school, focus more on serious topics in high school (with a little fun mixed in of course), and then top it off in a post-secondary school or college aimed at completing a professional certificate or degree. At every level from K-16, it’s important that young people see and hear from those of us who have lived in the domain of STEM. We need to pass along to them that it’s not ‘mysterious and daunting,’, but rather fun and rewarding.”
Bob Miller (left) - One of my mentors at Archives.
We are now seeing increased efforts to engage children and students of all ages through the development of makerspaces, STEM-focused summer camps, specialized curriculum (in some cases, entire specialized schools), and interactive learning spaces and events such as our Celebrate! Innovation Exhibition and ciWeek (dmacc.edu/ci). However, Gerry’s point is related to mentorship and engagement.
Regardless of what inspired me to go into STEM, grandpa Elmer, Bill, Hal, Bob, William, and my father were the reasons for my success. You shouldn’t have to learn everything from personal experience or direct observation. Life should be a collaborative experience. It shouldn’t be scary and overwhelming, especially as we’re surrounded by the experience and learning of people who have already been there. These people cheer us on, help us deal with frustration, give constructive criticism, share our disappointment, celebrate success, and graciously provide their time to help when needed. They take pride in seeing us succeed.
We all live busy, complicated lives. But if we truly want to help “fix” the STEM problem, we all need to become the Elmer, Bill, Hal, Bob, William, or Don in someone else’s life.