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Taking Up the Challenge

Challenger Center for Science Education presents award to Jackson Middle School teacher.

Five years ago, Steve Smith of Vienna was working as the director of medical education at the medical schools of George Washington University and Georgetown University. Although he enjoyed working in the education field, he wanted to try teaching in the classroom.

So after teaching high-school students in a summer program that exposed them to medicine, he discovered that the classroom was the place where he belonged. He signed up to become a student teacher at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church.

"I don't go to work; I go to school every day," said Smith, commenting on how much he enjoys his job.

While Smith appreciates teaching at Jackson Middle, his students and colleagues showed their appreciation of his work by presenting him with a 2004 Teacher of the Year Medal of Excellence given by the Alexandria-based Challenger Center for Science Education. The award recognizes teachers who are committed to their students and to science and technology education.

The Center itself was created in 1986 by the families of the astronauts who were lost in the Challenger 51-L mission, of which science teacher Christa McAuliffe was a crew member.

"Steve's commitment to the students and obvious joy in watching them succeed at their mission is remarkable to watch," said Laura Larson, the manager of the Challenger Learning Center of Greater Washington, a program of Challenger Center. "His dedication, passion, and knowledge of science have been exhibited at every encounter. He truly inspires his students every day to reach for the stars."

SMITH LEARNED that he had won the award during a May 20 surprise ceremony in the school. All of Smith's students, his wife and his former university professor showed up to congratulate Smith on his success.

"I am so proud you were recognized, because you deserve it," said Jackson Middle principal Carol Robinson to Smith.

Smith himself had no idea that he had won award; he knew he had been nominated but said he was surprised to find out that he had won.

He is one of five teachers who received the award. Nominations came from the 52 Challenger Learning Centers across the United States, Canada and England.

The award is a medal that contains small amounts of aluminum carried into space by astronaut Frank Borman. The medals, created in observance of the Apollo 8 mission, are gifts to the Center from Turner Wiley, former chief of the NASA Communications Branch for Engineering at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

"This has been such a wonderful thing for me. I have been so proud, I've just been floating," Smith said.

At the ceremony, Smith's students and colleagues said that what makes him an excellent teacher is his creativity and enthusiasm. Smith teaches seventh-grade life sciences classes at Jackson Middle.

"He makes science fun and interesting," said Sarah Kane, a seventh-grader.

Smith said that teaching at the middle-school level enables him to instill a love of science among the students. Although he coached track at Marshall High School while he was a student teacher at Jackson Middle, he found that he enjoyed interacting with middle-school students.

"There's more of an opportunity to make a change and have an impact in their lives for the future," Smith said.

ON A FIELD TRIP, Smith and his students visited the Challenger Learning Center of Greater Washington, where they led simulated space missions to Mars, to the moon, and to a comet.

At the Challenger Learning Center, groups of 30 are divided into teams, where some work in a simulated command center and others work on a simulated space craft. When on the missions, not only do students use their science skills about the solar system, they use math skills to navigate and language skills to communicate, Smith said.

"They really, really get into the role play. Because it's so engaging, they learn," Smith said.

A colleague at the Challenger Learning Center who has seen Smith with his students said Smith deserved the award because of the mutual respect Smith and his students have for each other.

"Outgoing. Dynamic. Curious," said the Alexandria Center's learning specialist George Kasunich, who is a former science teacher. "He has a curiosity that great teachers have."

When Smith isn't busy teaching, he enjoys playing the piano and growing orchids.

"My main mission ... is that students will have a better appreciation for science, and how it affects their lives every day," Smith said. "The thing is letting them know about the excitement of it, to be happy about science, and not afraid."