AIAA Member Spotlight – September 2016 – April A. Lanotte Written 16 September 2016

AIAA Profiles April A. Lanotte

Special "Back to School" Edition

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications (2008–2017)
16 September 2016

April-A-LanotteFeeling energized from its long rest in August, the Spotlight decided that one profile was not enough for the month of September, so after its short sprint to Atlanta, the Spotlight grew ambitious and also decided to point its beam west, falling on Calhan, Colorado, and illuminating April A. Lanotte, a Senior Instructor and Master Educator with the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs’ innovative UCCS Teach program. Lanotte has been a teacher for over 20 years. With a master’s degree in Space Education and a second master’s degree in English with a focus on nonfiction science writing, she works to make aeronautics and aerospace more accessible to students and the public. She has also provides education support to NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. She serves on AIAA’s K–12 STEM Outreach Committee as the Education Associate Working Group Lead and on the Diversity Engagement Working Group.

When I asked her if she had any specific influences that propelled her toward a career in STEM education, Lanotte replied, “I've always been interested in science, particularly astronomy and space science. Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. As I worked my way through high school, I began to doubt my abilities to handle higher-level math and decided to change career paths and went to college for English. Later, when I began teaching, I found myself always using science as topics for students to read and write about (I still took astronomy and other science courses in college, even though I was an English major), then went to graduate school with a focus on nonfiction science writing. I realized I was probably teaching the wrong subject and went back to earn a second master's degree in science education - emphasis in space education. I've taught science ever since. Remembering how no one ever told me I could get through math when it was difficult, or encouraged me to stick with my passion, I wanted to be the teacher who built student confidence.”

Lanotte also credited a teacher and her parents with inspiring her to continue on the STEM path, explaining, “I was inspired by my middle school teacher Mr. Watson – yes that really was his name – and my parents. While my dad was the one who was the most interested in space and was an amateur astronomer, my mom encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do.” She also added that “Sally Ride was someone I aspired to be like.”

When I asked Lanotte what her favorite part of being a teacher is, she answered, “There are so many amazing things about being a teacher. It might seem stereotypical for a teacher to say, but the most amazing times are those ‘ah-ha’ moments when a student understands something for the first time. Nothing can beat that. Now that I work with pre-service teachers at the university level who want to be STEM teachers, I look forward to those moments when students find exactly what they want to teach and come to me excited about those ‘ah-ha’ moments they've had with their students.”

When I asked Lanotte if she had any advice for students in aerospace programs, or if there were specific things that K–12 teachers can do to help students, Lanotte responded with thoughts from her own experience, explaining: “As I mentioned earlier, I never really had the support from a teacher when I began to doubt my skills and abilities. I wish I would have known that math is not a race (that you don't have to be the fastest, but just need to get through it), and that there will be ups and downs. Once I began to struggle in trig and stats, I thought I had reached my mental ceiling. It wasn't until later that I discovered I could get past that and go further. I wish I would have been told that struggle is ok, and that it will get better and be worth it.” She continued, “I think that advice works for an aerospace degree as well. It's going to be hard at times—really hard. But students should look for support because it's there—you just might need to find it. Also, I want students to know that when they are feeling low, like they are the "dumbest person in the room," that there is at least one other person feeling that same way. The path to any career, but particularly tougher fields like aerospace, is a marathon and not a sprint, so don't give up...just keep going. That payoff—the chance to work on amazing projects—is so worth it.”

The conversation turned to what Lanotte felt the best way to teach STEM subjects was and her thoughts on keeping students motivated and engaged: “I don't think there's any one way to teach STEM subjects, but I do think it's important to pull students into projects as much as possible. The pre-service teacher preparation program I work with focuses on inquiry-based learning, where students explore content without first being told what they should see or find. Only after students first explore a topic does the teacher help unfold the specifics of the content. Because if you can't get them excited first, then telling them all about something won't mean anything. I also think using project-based instruction, where students are involved with an authentic, real-world project, is one of the best ways to get students excited and want to learn.”

When I asked Lanotte about what she saw in the future of STEM teaching and how methods might change in the coming years, she replied, “With advances in technology and more and more students able to find STEM content online, personalized education will be more of a focus, with students learning from a combination of face-to-face and online sources. I see the role of the teacher changing. Instead of a teacher standing in front of the room teaching everyone in the same way with the same content, teachers will need to be more of a guide, helping students manipulate more individualized content.”

We closed our conversation by discussing how aerospace professionals might be able to help teachers in the classroom. Lanotte offered twofold advice, stating first: “While many teachers are great at leading their students through STEM content, aerospace engineers and scientists can help by first, getting students excited to learn more by letting them know more about what projects they are working on, second, how students can get involved, and third what pitfalls they might encounter. Many aerospace engineers and scientists don't like to talk about their personal struggles—such as when they felt like they weren't going to succeed, or when they made mistakes, or when they changed career paths, etc. But this is exactly what students need to hear—they need to realize that professionals are human, too — even smart professionals!”

She explained: “Perhaps a crucial way to help, however, is to build a relationship with students in a classroom or club. Research shows that longevity makes a huge difference when working with students. Just one visit to a classroom may make a small impact, but returning multiple times allows students to feel more comfortable, ask more questions, and start to see professionals as role models. Sometimes we worry too much about numbers—wanting to reach as many students as possible—and lose out on some deeper interactions that take more time.”

AIAA congratulates April A. Lanotte on her selection as the AIAA Spotlight subject for the month of September 2016, and we wish her the best as she continues to inspire and teach those who inspire and teach our nation’s students.