Clemson alumna and National Aerospace Teacher of the Year credits her success to lifelong learning
Beth Leavitt didn’t travel the traditional road to education. In fact, it took 14 years after graduating from Clemson in 1984 before she stepped into her classroom at Wade Hampton High School, where she teaches AP physics. She worked as a chemist for an environmental company before she turned to education, but Leavitt doesn’t see this as wasted time.
For her, there is no such thing. A career in science and the many additional scientific pursuits she’s engaged in since stepping into education are why she’s successful. According to Leavitt, transitioning knowledge from her “past life” in science to the classroom and taking advantage of every opportunity that came her way to explore science is a big part of why she was named National Aerospace Teacher of the Year and South Carolina’s State Air Force Educator of the Year in 2017.
We got the chance to pick Leavitt’s brain during one of her recent visits to Clemson as she geared up to once again aid the Buzz Aldrin ShareSpace Foundation in an unveiling of giant Mars maps in the Upstate. With Greenville as her starting point, Leavitt has spearheaded the introduction of these maps to South Carolina.
She will be on hand to help the foundation unveil the maps at Chapman Cultural Center in Spartanburg on April 10 and, hopefully, to multiple areas in the state in the future. She talked with us about teaching, meeting Buzz Aldrin, Mars Maps and why it pays to be a lifelong geek.
Michael Staton: You’ve spent nearly 20 years at the same school. Why was Wade Hampton a great fit for you?
Beth Leavitt: It’s a great school with great leadership. One former principal, Lance Radford, really changed the culture of the school during his time there. He supported teachers 100 percent and let us pursue the professional development that we found valuable for our classrooms. He gave us the freedom to do that. I pursued every opportunity that came my way and not a lot of people have the courage to do that. I went to NASA workshops, applied to be a teacher astronaut and was given opportunities by NASA to learn climate science, work in wind tunnels and put up sub-orbital atmospheric balloons.
Even if these things aren’t funded by a school, teachers should seek them out, if only to watch experts at work. It has helped to have a supportive husband and kids that were willing—most of the time—to be dragged to things and be involved. I’m not surprised that both my sons are in STEM fields.
MS: Do you regret majoring in biology now instead of physics?
BL: It doesn’t matter; I’m just all about science. I’m a wild mushroom forager and I enjoy looking for salamanders in DuPont State Forest. I’m still doing biology. I’m just a geek. Science is everything because it is the world around you. Everyone should be curious, look up from the screen once and a while and appreciate it.
MS: How did you find out your work was being recognized on a national level?
BL: I got an email in 2016 from the National Space Club that informed me it was looking at past finalists for its selection process and that I was very close to winning it in 2010. I didn’t even know that I had been nominated. So I took that opportunity to update my résumé and later got a call that informed me I had been selected.
The award ceremony was surreal. Buzz Aldrin is sitting next to me; on the other side of me is Dr. Rayman, head of the Dawn space probe mission; then next to him is a representative of the Juno Mission team; and next to him was Jeff Bezos, who was receiving an award for his New Shepard team and history making spaceflight vehicles. I’m sitting there and I’m like, “it’s just me!”
MS: What was it like to meet Buzz Aldrin?
BL: Buzz talked up a storm, about the moon and the Korean war, but he kept talking about Mars. We both agreed that America should be there, so he eventually asked if I had one of his maps, and that’s how I got involved with Buzz Aldrin’s ShareSpace Foundation. The Mars Maps are these 25 feet by 25 feet rubberized canvas maps of the entire surface of Mars. They’re monstrous. We have five maps in Greenville County now, and I’m working with Roper Mountain Science Center to train teachers to use them in schools.
The maps are a great way to bring the benefits of STEAM disciplines into focus for students. GPS isn’t going to work on Mars, so the maps are a great way to explain latitude and longitude to students. If you present students with problems, such as how you’d find water or shelter or a satellite dish in need of repairs, it gets them thinking in those terms. I also like to ask my advanced placement students how they would get a stuck rover out of a deep crater. It makes things fun and real as we humans will one day be on Mars.
MS: What’s one piece of advice to future teachers on making this kind of material interesting?
BL: The youth of today will be solving the problems we create for the future. I’d like to think my legacy will be that I helped train some of the leaders of tomorrow. All teachers should think that way and realize what they’re doing is important.
Students often don’t realize that what they’re seeing or doing is relevant. I’ll ask them why it’s important or where they could see it coming into play. Take an athlete, for example, they should be thinking physics all the time. I sat next to an Olympic boxer on a plane once, and we chatted the whole flight. Boxers can only strength train so much and get so much force into a punch; the rest of it is all follow through and pivoting with their body. I asked him if his trainers talk about that stuff, and he said it factors into almost everything they do. That’s physics at work!
Ms. Leavitt directs a high school robotics team, FIRST Robotics Team 283, the Generals.