Teacher Takes Kids Into Space
Emmaus resident Bob Boehmer has inspired a generation of students in science, math, art and space exploration as a Parkland teacher.
"Go for launch! Go for launch!"
Teacher Bob Boehmer is shouting as the fifth graders at Schnecksville Elementary School sit at the controls aboard Space Shuttle Blake, preparing for virtual takeoff into space.
The shuttle is rocking back and forth, as the students, computer screens at their fingertips, watch the shuttle exit the launch pad and rocket into space.
Today's destination: The International Space Station, where the students, following scientific clues, will partner to try to figure out where a piece of space equipment has fallen. Once they reach a consensus, two of the students will be selected to don space suits and retrieve it from the chosen planet, then plant a U.S. flag there.
This is learning, Boehmer style.
As coordinator of Parkland School District's Space Shuttle Blake the past two decades, Boehmer has inspired a generation of students in the study of science, math, art and space exploration. For his commitment to students and devotion to quality in education, Boehmer was recipient of Cedar Crest College's 2011 Howard L. Klopp Exemplary Teacher Award.
"Bob has an incredible ability to break down complex content into easily understandable bits of information for the students," said Schnecksville Elementary School Principal William Bowen, who nominated Boehmer for the award. "A true teacher makes a child want to learn more."
Boehmer, a teacher in the Parkland School District for 36 years, was instrumental in developing the district's Space Shuttle Blake, which he calls his "wild idea" to carry on space science-related education after the tragic explosion of the Challenger in 1986.
He was on bus duty one day when the idea came to him that a bus could be a shuttle. Folks initially thought he and his former principal were "crazy" in their pursuit. But with support of the Parkland School District administration, donors and retired Mack Truck employees, he saw his dream realized six years later.
The Mack retirees helped outfit an old Marine Corps transport bus into the Space Shuttle Blake. Inside, it is a hands-on science lab, and outside, it looks like a space shuttle, four-tenths the size. It has ground-to-space communication capabilities (for past contact with the real Space Shuttle and international space station), a flight simulator and hydraulic wings.
More than 64,000 children across the Lehigh Valley have taken flight there. Earlier this year, NASA invited the Blake shuttle to the Endeavour launch in recognition of its contribution to space exploration education.
Judging by the excitement on kids' faces aboard the mock shuttle, Boehmer knows he is having an impact. And when the younger ones ask if they are really going to space, he knows he has caught their imagination. "They still question it," he said.
On this day at the Schnecksville Elementary School, there's no shortage of giggles as the fifth graders launch, then go to work in teams inside the adjoining international space station. Assistants are dressed in blue flight suits, as Boehmer plays straight man to a robot named Blake, who loves "the Bieber" and seeks the students' scientific expertise to help find the lost space equipment. Every student has a role in figuring things out.
The Space Shuttle Blake is a hook for teaching math and science, Boehmer said. If the program hooks students in kindergarten, third and fifth grades, he said, then teachers in higher grades can further develop that interest. He said the program has inspired students to pursue careers in the military and computer, science and business fields. One former student became a NASA engineer.
Boehmer, 59, of Emmaus, is bit of a Renaissance man. He is an art teacher, but like Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo, he always had an interest in science as well. His love of space aviation was fostered as a child, when he huddled with fellow students to watch televised space missions.
"I was kind of always in both worlds," Boehmer said. "I always had an interest in aviation and science."
Bowen, the principal at Schnecksville elementary school, said Boehmer has had an impact on so many students over his teaching career. "They've developed a love of art," he said, "and they've developed a love of space science."
Boehmer will retire at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, and with NASA's space shuttle program having ended as well, the district will end its Blake program at the end of the school year. But hopes are strong that the Space Shuttle Blake will become a learning classroom at a local science center.
Boehmer's advice to other dreamers like himself is to have "a lot a patience, a lot of persistence, and good luck."