When Teachers Share Their Passion, It Can Lead to a Future That Is Truly Out of This World

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“My teachers were all so dedicated and through their passion, I really gained an interest in math and science,” said Johnathan Brendle, a 2012 graduate of Unity Reed High School and currently a project support specialist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Part of Brendle’s role in the Earth Sciences/Atmospheres Division at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is to use his knowledge of the sciences to communicate and educate the public about research and activities taking place at NASA. Brendle attributes his high school teachers’ support and his time in the International Baccalaureate Programme at Unity Reed High to helping him realize his potential and use his passions and strengths to find the right career.

Brendle recalls a first period class during freshman year where his teacher Heidi Summers shared her love for the earth and planetary sciences and made sure to engage with her students. Brendle named Jessica Hruska, his biology teacher, as another passionate educator and a great influence on his love for science.

After high school, Brendle earned a bachelor’s degree in physics/astrophysics from Virginia Commonwealth University but his path to the position he now holds was not a direct one. Late in college, he switched majors from engineering after realizing he missed having a science focus. A final piece of the career puzzle fit together for him when he contacted a NASA scientist he’d frequently watched as a teen on the Science Channel. Brendle said he admired how Dr. Michelle Thaller, an astrophysicist and communications specialist at NASA, could make difficult concepts understandable.

“I remembered how I would do this in high school,” said Brendle, recalling one of his high school math teachers, Chris Sparkman, who recognized that same capability in him. “I had him three years in a row and it was in his class that I really applied myself. He was a great teacher and really made everything understandable and I felt that he always expected more from me. He pushed me to work hard and share my understanding with my peers; something so important when learning math and science.”

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has the highest concentration of PhD scientists in the world. Brendle marvels in the idea that, a few buildings over, they run the Hubble Space Telescope. In another, engineers are constructing the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope and it’s where they built and tested the James Webb Space Telescope. He knows his role is an important one and he is made to feel part of the same team.

Brendle also credits the great variety of course options available to students at Unity Reed and the diverse learning experiences he had there to giving him an understanding of how he learns. This understanding, combined with teachers who ignited his interest in science and math, helped him find a path that blends his interests and his strengths.

“Project support specialist is a very broad role,” said Brendle. “I have many different tasks from day to day. I can appreciate that I am here, and I love my job.“

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