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Oakton's Rocket Man

Oakton High School names Steve Scholla its top teacher for 2004.

In order to complete its rocketry project, the team was divided up to solve the various problems: some members worked with the rocket simulation software to determine the rocket's shape, while others were charged to test the models. A few team members kept track of the project's finances, while some hashed out production logistics.

The members who made up the team were not engineers at a local technology company, but students at Oakton High School in Vienna. And their task was to put into practice the principles they had learned in their physics classes. By working on the project, rocketry team sponsor and physics teacher Steve Scholla hoped that students would better understand how theory applies to reality.

"For me, sitting in a classroom is not a real life situation," Scholla said. "I not only teach people real science and engineering, I also teach them skills enormously valuable in the workplace."

THAT PHILOSOPHY is one of the reasons why Scholla was named the 2004 Teacher of the Year at Oakton. In recognizing Scholla, peers, parents and current and former students noted Scholla's intellect, dedication, and a confident and approachable demeanor.

"He was very thoughtful and made sure I understood everything," said Oakton senior Kristin Parker, who took physics from Scholla last year. She had been attempting to understand one concept, and Scholla would patiently work with her, trying different methods to help her learn. "He's a really nice guy and a good teacher."

When Scholla discovered that he had been named Teacher of the Year, he called it "a complete surprise."

"It's nice," said Scholla of the recognition. "This building has an exceptional faculty. To be recognized as one of the top faculty says a lot."

An Oakton teacher for 10 years, Scholla has witnessed the class rolls in his physics classes climb from 12 students to 30 to 50 students.

But Scholla didn't set out initially for a career in education. The Reston resident, after studying physics at Catholic University, worked on the submarine program of an engineering company.

After seven years at the firm, he grew tired of the bureaucracy. Scholla left, and started a business of framing pictures and works of art. His clients included the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Business was successful until about 1990, when the nation experienced a recession. Thinking he needed something more steady to support his wife and three children, Scholla decided to give teaching a try. He never left.

"I feel like I really found my niche. I love to teach, and I can't imagine doing anything else," Scholla said.

AT OAKTON, Scholla teaches Honors Physics and Advanced Placement Physics. But he also is a faculty sponsor for several student projects and groups. He served as sponsor for the U.S. FIRST Robotics team, the Oakton Rocketry team, the Oakton crew team and the TechXplore team.

Through Scholla's guidance, each of the three project teams achieved placements in their various competitions. Three rocketry teams participated in the contest finals on May 22, in The Plains, Va. Each team designed, built and tested a model rocket that could fly up to 1,250 feet with a load of two raw eggs.

As one of three schools in the United States to have three teams from the school qualify, Oakton competed against 100 other top-scoring high school teams at The Plains, out of the 600 teams who entered the competition. One team did not make it, but another team received 47th place, and the third team 14th place.

"They learned teamwork. They learned about managing finances. And they took complete ownership of it," Scholla said.

Other teams Scholla has sponsored have been equally successful. The U.S. FIRST Robotics team finished 11th in the region and made it to the semi-finals. The TechXplore team was one of three high school teams nationally recognized for its approach to the project, which was to examine the past, present and future uses of nanotechnology and construct a Web site based on those findings.

As for Scholla's involvement in the crew team, he became sponsor because his son and his friends wanted to have a crew team at Oakton. Other parents had volunteered for his projects, and he felt it was time for himself to volunteer.

"If it weren't for parent support, we'd have to eliminate some of the [projects]," Scholla said.

As an award from the rocketry competition, Scholla will be going to a three-day workshop at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

For the rest of the summer, he will be teaching fifth and sixth graders at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. In past summers, he had taught physics as an adjunct professor at George Mason University.

When not working, Scholla said he enjoys sea kayaking and cooking. He particularly likes making Asian dishes because of the combinations of tastes.

"Steve is remarkable in so many ways. First, he's an incredibly brilliant person. Second, the amount of time and energy he dedicates to students is extraordinary," said Oakton principal Charlie Ostlund, referring to the Saturdays he would see Scholla at school working with students. "He's truly a master teacher. He's as good as it gets."