Centennial Middle School teacher Jon Hutman has gone out of his way to share his passion for space with his students. And for that dedication, he’s been named the Kyrene Elementary School District’s Teacher of the Year.
Hutman has been fascinated by space and aeronautics ever since he was small and always wanted to teach the subject.
Luckily for Hutman, he received his master’s degree and taught for a year in Ohio near Wright Patterson Air Force Base, where the military has a facility meant to get kids interested in aviation and space.
“From there, I was so hooked,” Hutman said. “I always thought I would teach space, but I didn’t know how.”
When Hutman and his wife moved to Arizona, he specifically chose a seventh-grade science position because he knew that curriculum dealt with space more than any other grade.
He also sought out opportunities to learn more about space and incorporate it into the classroom. He’s been involved with activities at Kitt Peak in Tucson, Arizona State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He’s licensed to borrow moon rocks.
And last summer, he went to Honeywell Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.
Hutman was in heaven. He got to talk to astronauts, pilot a flight simulator and eat lunch with Homer Hickem, author of the book Rocket Boys, on which the movie October Sky was based.
“I got to eat lunch with him and his wife, and there we were, under a Saturn V rocket,” Hutman said.
Back at Centennial, he planned a Space Night in the spring. He borrowed a Star Lab from ASU, coordinated with a local astronomy club and set up several hands-on space activities for the whole family.
It was popular, attracting 200 people instead of the 50 expected, said principal Ev Michell, and people are already asking about when it will happen next year.
Somewhere along the way, Hutman attracted the attention of someone with connections to the Student Signatures in Space program. One day, Hutman looked in his mailbox and discovered a poster with instructions to have students at the school sign it and then send it back so a digital copy could get aboard an upcoming shuttle flight.
Students, staff members, family members and friends have all signed the poster, which boasts around 1,200 signatures.
But more than these special activities, Hutman brings his love of space into the classroom.
“Kids aren’t interested in astronomy and math right now. They just aren’t,” Hutman said.
That’s bad news if the U.S. is going to reach its goal of going to Mars in 20 to 25 years, Hutman said.
But he believes that interest can be sparked by exposing kids to things that are going on in space exploration right now with news clips and hands-on activities instead of only having kids read about past achievements.
“These kids right now in my seventh-grade science class are the perfect age to become the next Neil Armstrong,” Hutman said.
So Hutman finds ways to let students watch NASA launches, then try their own experiments. After watching a rocket launch, students had to build paper rockets that met exact goals. After studying the Mars rover, students spent the last week of school building a lander out of straws, tape and paper that could cushion two marshmallow astronauts dropped from a set height.
“We can do things in here like build rockets and test them, just like they’re doing with the Ares rocket,” Hutman said. “Anything NASA did, I made sure the kids did.”
The Teacher of the Year award wasn’t ever Hutman’s goal – in fact, he said he never thought it could happen to him. Instead, he was trying to get back to Huntsville for the advanced space academy, sharing “cool stuff” with his students all the while.
“I never thought people would take notice,” he said.
But people did.
“He puts kids’ interests first,” Michell said. “He does a lot of hands-on exploratory stuff, and really makes kids interested in science.”
Leslie Kisch’s daughter, Maggie Fye, won a national essay contest offered by NASA as Hutman’s student this year. Maggie wasn’t available to comment because she was on vacation, but Kisch said Hutman’s activities did open up new interests for her.
“With the opportunities he gives them, the extra stuff, she finds it fun and interesting and challenging,” Kisch said.
Hutman didn’t get into the advanced space academy this year, but said he’ll try again.
In the meantime, he’s just continuing to share his passion for space. Even in the last week of school, he had students busy with hands-on activities.
“For a week, that’s what my kids did,” Hutman said. “We signed a poster that’s going on a space shuttle, then we built a Mars lander and rover.”