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‘St. Louis On The Air’ Listeners Share Their STEM School Memories

teacher with two young children
U.S. Department of Education

Wednesday on “St. Louis on the Air,” we learned about a St. Louis Science Center program that helps teens learn science, technology, engineering and math skills. Ahead of that segment, we asked listeners about memorable STEM experiments, classes and learning moments. Here’s what they told us. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Sarah R.: I grew up in a small town in Tennessee (Tullahoma), which was the site of an Air Force Base and testing facility. My town was crawling with engineers. Probably because of the local interest in engineering, our math department at the public high school was particularly strong. My favorite math teacher, Frank Vanzant, taught all pre-calculus and calculus classes, and I was fortunate enough to have him two years in a row. One of my favorite memories of calculus was a project that had our class divide into teams, then devise a cup from everyday materials around our house to keep hot water hot as long as possible. We invented a (pretty ridiculous) container, then logged the temperature every minute (I think), then plotted it on a chart. Once we had a large enough data set (about 15 minutes, I believe), we were asked to come up with an equation to represent the water temperature relative to the elapsed time. It was more fun than it sounds. :)

I can't say that my calculus skills have stayed sharp in the 20+ years since I took the class, or that they get much use in my daily life, but I am grateful for the love of math that Mr. Vanzant instilled in me, and that has certainly persisted. And I still use my equation-creating skills whenever I can!

Dennis H.: I was educated in a public high school in the mid ’60s. While I was most interested in science and math, I had a balanced education. My high school achievements were sufficient for admission to MIT, where I did very well majoring in chemistry, and then to graduate school at Harvard where I earned a Ph.D. in the life sciences. I have spent most of my career in academia, undertaking basic research in biochemistry and immunology. With all my science training, I still consider what I learned from a particularly innovative high school social studies teacher to be among my most important lessons. The way he taught us to examine facts critically and make our own informed decisions was echoed years later in the way top scientists approach their work.

George B.: I am an old-timer, but thought you might enjoy the perspective. I graduated from high school in 1957 on a "college technical" track. This was in a small town in northern Ohio. At that time, high schools in general did not offer advanced placement classes. The only difference between college technical and college prep was that we had to take advanced algebra and trigonometry. My high school did not teach calculus. I enrolled in mechanical engineering at the Ohio State University which, in those days, was a five-year curriculum, as they wanted the engineering students to be "well rounded" so we had to take many more electives (English, history, etc.) than many engineering schools. I was generally well prepared academically, but it was a shock to have to take 21 quarter hours of classes each quarter. We were in class from early in the morning until dark. Now they are on a semester system. I graduated with a bachelor of mechanical engineering degree in 1962.

Another difference between then and now was that as a graduate engineer, one could have had about as many job offers as one wanted to interview for, as many recruiters came to campus and most companies hired a number of new grads each year just to keep the pipeline full. This was much different when my son graduated about 40 years later, and engineering jobs had become scarce. I later got a master’s degree from the University of Missouri at Rolla.

Tom S.: No doubt. My bachelor of science in computer science from Rolla (1986) provided the essential foundation for my professional success. In addition to learning specific software programming skills, I also learned general critical thinking skills that provided a framework for accelerating and improving the results of my work.

My favorite classroom memory is of a teacher discussing the results of a test with the class. Reaching around the back of his head to touch his nose, he said “many of you attempted to solve this problem like this but there is a much easier way to do it.” It drove home the concept “work smarter, not harder.”

Barbara A.: In 1962, when I graduated from a parochial high school here, I had taken algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, physics and chemistry. Since none of this was “my thing,” I scraped by, but can add, subtract, multiply and divide in my head and have a rudimentary knowledge of the sciences. Nevertheless, I think my education was far better than it is today with the memorizing we had to do to retain the information. The funny thing of it was, my final grades in these courses were not registered with the public school system because the courses, apparently, weren’t required in the core curriculum.

Dennis O.: My high school chemistry inspired me, as well as one Nobel Prize in chemistry winner and one major academic inorganic chemist who was the chemistry department chair for a number of universities. I also was one of those with a backyard laboratory (you could do that in those days), running my own experiments. I learned as much on my own as I did from books and teachers.

I earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1969. Between my sophomore and junior years, I got a job as a chemistry technician in the nematology department and was soon allowed to run my own experiments. In the time up to when I went to grad school, I published five papers in refereed journals. In graduate school, I published another eight papers and was the graduate marshal for my Ph.D. graduation.

I was one of the top 30 scientists at Monsanto when I left after 27 years. My favorite program that I initiated was a discovery of a family of many fragrance compounds made by shining UV light on two compounds, causing them to combine into the fragrance compound.

Patricia P.: I am 67 years old and math challenged. I struggled with algebra and was tutored through geometry. Somehow I made it through college and graduate school without ever taking any math course except teaching math in the elementary school. I am STILL math challenged. I also never took chemistry. What messed up college advisory system let that happen?

Gary S.: My intense education in physics and mathematics was a perfect fit for my first set of careers in information technology. Having learned how to learn, I understand new technology and apply it to my customers’ unique needs. Heavy education and hands on experience in IT reinforced my ability to analyze situations and develop and deliver custom solutions for my customers. I also received both formal training and significant experience in project management, and when my employer made project management a major focus, I led my team by being the first to achieve certification.

In my new world of building science, all of that background has been invaluable. I learned fast, recognizing early what I needed to know. ASAP, I took formal LEED education and passed the LEED AP exam. When the National Green Building Standard came out, I was one of the first to absorb the standard and become a certified verifier. Then came Passive House, Energy Star, all with the intent of creating sustainable buildings to literally preserve our planet.

My building projects show the value of combined deep and wide knowledge. My energy models are complex, but because I understand the physics behind the models, I can do independent calculations to ensure that the models are correct. Having deep understanding of technology lets me work with HVAC, solar and other specialists to ensure the best solutions for my clients. I use my “school tools” when analyzing new products to determine whether they deliver what they promise. I can also expose scams, protecting my clients.

Thirty years at IBM proved just how nourishing my education still is.

Who are your memorable STEM teachers? What skills did you learn then that you still use now? Leave a comment below.

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“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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