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From Advanced Placement Classes to Artemis Astronaut Class

“There was one (Advanced Placement) teacher who I particularly admired because I loved the subject –calculus,” said Andre Douglas, Ph.D., a 2024 NASA Graduate and member of the class of next generation of Artemis astronauts. “Although I was self-driven and wanted to take AP classes, I remember her being very good at teaching and she was such a positive presence in the classroom.”

Speaking His Language

“With math, there was this concept of using symbols and equations to describe what happens in the real world – and that blew my mind,” Douglas said.
He said this teacher taught him and the other students that you can do so much with math. Douglas quickly realized that these symbols, equations and understanding of mathematic building blocks was like learning another language.
Using this language of calculus enabled him to describe how particles move through the earth in the universe, how cars work with respect to motion and how so many other things in our world function.
“It was just so cool, and it really inspired me,” Douglas said. “I figured if I could learn calculus, I could learn anything.”
And while Douglas had that belief in himself to think outside the box, he feels that some students today don’t have that same confidence level and understanding of how those building blocks can help them achieve their most ambitious dreams. He attributes part of that lack to the way our world functions compared to the years when he was a student.
“(In our digital world), we have this attention span that's very small and we like to get that instant gratification over and over,” Douglas explains.
“So, when you’re taking these harder classes as you get into the older grade levels, I think it’s important to recognize that you're still learning how to learn,” he continues. “While you’re getting the guidance, receiving the instructions and thinking outside the box, you're also building confidence. But first, you need to understand the basic rules so you can solve a lot of problems.”

The Convergence of Math and Science

Although Douglas loved calculus, he had an equivalent passion for physics. “The cool thing is that you could use calculus in physics, so they were somewhat coupled. When I go back to talking about how the universe works, physics is a way to help describe that,” he said. “You’re using math as a tool to bounce back and forth between those subjects.”
Douglas also recognizes his weaknesses. He struggled with history because he’s not a person that likes to memorize things. But STEM courses fueled his mind.
“Instead, I thrived by knowing a few (math) rules that I could use to create an understanding of the universe,” Douglas explained. “That’s what drove me to really understand and seek out trigonometry, differential equations and other similar concepts.”
One thing that stood out from the interview with Douglas is that he used the word “create” within the context of his education without ever mentioning classes that are often associated with creativity – like art, music and writing.
While some may believe that math and science are dry subjects with rigid rules, for Douglas, those rules laid a firm foundation to create solutions, to create an understanding of concepts, to create a future for himself in which he would become a graduate of NASA.

Building Blocks for Scientific Discovery

Although his interest in math began early, that foundation helped with his engineering studies because they used a lot of those mathematic tools. He explains that the higher-level math and calculus prepared him to pursue mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, hydrodynamics and nonlinear equations. And it paid off.
In addition to his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Douglas has earned three master’s degrees – in mechanical engineering; naval architecture and marine engineering; and electrical and computer engineering – and a doctorate in systems engineering.
“It was helpful to have my curiosity backed by a good structure from the school to demonstrate that I could do it and I could keep going,” he said. “However, it's not just your own drive, but also the infrastructure around you. A lot of students may have the drive, but they may not have the family or cultural supports.”
Educators who are putting in the work in the trenches of our classrooms can provide that structure for students. In spite of systemic challenges within the educational and social environments, teachers are uniquely positioned to help students find that spark of curiosity. To use curriculum to build structure. To provide encouragement. To help students see their potential. To ultimately help create the next generation of STEM professionals.
This is why EVERY week should be Teacher Appreciation Week. And it’s why we are forever grateful for every single educator.