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Inspiring People

Inspiring Teacher—Dee McLellan

    Aimee Meyer


Using the glove box at Johnson Space Center, Dee McLellan gets an opportunity to hold moon rocks and meteorites.

Draw a picture of what you want to be when you grow up. That was my assignment when I was in second grade. I was really torn. As many girls my age, I thought of a ballerina. This was interesting to me, but was that what I really wanted to do? No, I really wanted to be a scientist. So I drew a stick figure with a wide brim hat, holding a pick hammer in one hand and a Dinosaur fossil in the other. I saw science as field work. No white lab coat. My teacher informed the class that this was a special scientist called a paleontologist. This information was disappointing to me. I didn’t want to just study one kind of science. I was interested in everything on Earth and in Space.

At this time, NASA was into the Gemini program and developing the Apollo program. I remember reading in my Weekly Reader about the Apollo One accident. I felt sad for the astronauts, but did not understand at the time that it was almost the end of USA’s manned moon missions. I figured by the time I was 20 years old or so, travel to the moon would be open to the public. As a child, I would tell everyone that I planned to get married on the moon and that I watched the first man step on the Moon, live on TV.

Fast forward to fifth grade. My fifth grade teacher was my inspiration. As we worked on our spelling or math lessons, he would push a tall cart into our room with a big boxy black and white TV perched on top, tuned into the Apollo rocket launches that where going to the Moon! I was so grateful to have a teacher that wanted us to see these live events. That was the year I decided that I wanted to help others learn, too. So, it wasn’t a scientist or even a ballerina that I wanted to be when I grew up. What I really wanted to be was a teacher— the kind that would help kids experience and witness science, as my fifth-grade teacher did for me!

The really great part of this story is that in order to be a hands-on, exciting teacher, I would try to be involved with science myself. This led to exciting dinosaur digs, flying over active volcanoes, walking on fresh lava and through lava tube caves, and even snorkeling with a giant sea turtle!. I have been to mountain tops to witness the rings of Saturn through giant telescopes, and donned the white cleanroom suit to hold a moon rock and a meteorite, and then stepped across the hall to watch scientists remove the first sample of comet dust from the Stardust return capsule. I watched in awe as the test Mars Pathfinder rover spun around the testing area and watched from the base of the Deep Space Network antenna as the data came in from the Stardust spacecraft, 250 million miles away. I was driven to the base of the NASA rocket launch pads and stood on the top of the NASA rocket engine test towers—I even watched an astronaut teacher launch into space on the Space Shuttle. I have done all of this, and more, just to bring these experiences back to students and make education exciting for them.

I have not left my student behind. They have watched live events, including: the Stardust comet return capsule come back to Earth; the Mars rover landing; the Genesis return capsule land in the Utah desert; and the International Space Station with the Space Shuttle fly over. We’ve watched the Northern lights, meteor showers, transits, launches and landings of the shuttle. My students have traveled with me to NASA facilities and fossil dig sites. And the best part about my job is that I get to keep learning and be inspired with my students.

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