Astronaut lands at Towson New Academy aims to increase interest in science among students in Baltimore area
by Sharon Leff, Editor in Chief
Towson, MD (October, 2007) — After traveling in space and orbiting the Earth, Donald Thomas decided to encourage young students to become math and science major in the Baltimore area.
Thomas started as director of the Willard Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science in the Jess and Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics Aug. 1.
Hackerman, president and CEO of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., donated $1 million to start the Academy in June 2006. The goal of the academy is to increase student’s interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) while at the same time, exposing them to Towson University.
Thomas, who was an astronaut and engineer at NASA for 20 years, orbited the Earth 600 times during his missions and conducted science experiments.
"Astronauts struggle with what they're going to do when they retire. I wanted to work in a university, working with kids, the next generation," Thomas said.
He first got interested in space when he was six years old when the first American was sent into space. He remembers watching it on black and white TV and knowing right then that he wanted to go into space.
"I wanted to see what floating in space is like for my own. I want to see the sun rise and the sun set from space," Thomas said.
He hopes to translate that love of space and science to students. Thomas said that the state of Maryland is in need of more math and science majors in part because of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).
One of the initiatives in Towson's 2010 plan is to "develop and implement a plan to meet the growing need for science and mathematics teachers in our region."
Thomas said he will be creating programs for middle school and high school level students to get them involved.
"For the middle school kids we’re going to show them that math and science are fun. You can have a good time doing them, it's interesting," he said.
For the high school students, Thomas wants to get them working in labs on Towson's campus so they can see the research faculty is involved in. "Hopefully with that experience they see Towson, they see what we do here," he said.
Thomas said a lot of the functions related to the Academy will not need a classroom and will be hosted off campus.
On Nov. 17, the Academy will host an event at the Maryland Science Center with 37 girls from different middle schools in Baltimore City. The program will last five hours and the theme will be space.
Right now Thomas is still in the process of meeting people at the University. He is collaborating with others and figuring out what role the Academy can play in Towson's future.
He is also looking into how the Academy can attract donors. "[The $1 million gift was a] one time gift. It's always a possibility there will be further gifts, if not from him, we're going to be looking at money and grants that are going to be available from the state of Maryland and other organizations that support STEM initiatives," he said.
When Thomas applied to be an astronaut he said he wasn't immediately accepted for the position he wanted. However he kept applying and eventually he achieved his dream. That's the message he wants to instill in the next generation of students.
"Whatever dream you have, you can make it come true. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication and if you don't give up on your dream I'm convinced it can come true," he said.
Reprinted with permission from The Towerlight
Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science
Psychology Building, Room 208 (campus map)
Hours: Monday - Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.