Behind the Helmet: Leland Melvin on Setbacks, Purpose and Inspiration
STEM The astronaut opens up about the personal inspiration and setbacks that brought him to such heights, and how STEM needs the ‘Arts’ to power America’s next generation on STEAM.
What motivated you to this career path?
The biggest motivation for me was my parents telling me at an early age that I can do or be anything I put my mind to. They were educators living in a middle class neighborhood in a small Virginia town where I did not see people like me walking on the moon like Neil and Buzz. Books like “The Little Engine That Could” and “Curious George” were transformative and unlocked possibilities for my young mind. Later in life, I was exposed to engineering and the possibilities of me flying in space. Curiosity, and the “I think I can, I think I can” refrain from the Little Engine had been instilled in me early and helped me actualize my path.
How have the setbacks in your life ultimately led to your successes?
Dropping a potential winning touchdown pass at my high school homecoming football game and losing my hearing in a training accident all prepared me in different ways for success. In both instances, I failed and it was the people that supported and believed in me, even when I did not believe in myself, that kept me moving forward and not giving up.
"Students need to get their hands dirty: touch and feel, cut, shape and mold to build and create, as a team."
An area of study called Growth Mindsets by Carol Dwek shows that your brain actually grows more as you overcome failure. The successes are also even sweeter when you overcome adversity and stay the path.
How do you inspire the next generation of explorers?
Interest: finding out what students are interested in and riffing off their interest as the starting point to teaching is very important. The union of interest, peer culture and academic pursuits is the sweet spot for engaged learning. Connecting this trio to higher causes for saving lives or the planet gives another level of satisfaction, purpose and inspiration.
Why is STEAM education just as valuable as STEM education?
STEM without the “Arts” is just STEM. The “A” part is what gives us our culture—our soul. When you think about all the people around the world playing instruments, creating art, cooking (culinary arts), the arts helps connect us as humans. My passion with the “A” is that it helps us be inclusive in school and also promotes project-based learning. As a kid I was blessed to have a well-rounded education in the form of academic, athletic and artistic pursuits. My dad was a schoolteacher, athlete and musician, so I just expected that’s how it was. The “A” for the arts was so critical for me because it helped me see the connections between art, music, math and mechanical things. The fusion of thoughts and ideas in different areas really creates a holistic learning environment allowing one to fluidly move from one area to another.
Why is project-based learning such an important part of a student’s education?
Project-based learning is what prepares students for real-world problem solving. Our greatest inventions were often created by people solving problems to overcome challenges. I saw an eight-year-old girl’s design of an anti-bullying band that would notify teachers of bullying at school. Building a rocket requires many disciplines and is not done in a single classroom. Students need to get their hands dirty: touch and feel, cut, shape and mold to build and create, as a team. Exposure to real-world problem solving as early as possible during the formative educational years is a critical.
What’s your greatest accomplishment?
I feel my greatest accomplishment is inspiring our next generation of explorers by sharing my story of overcoming challenges and not giving up. Serving as a mentor and role model, like my parents, gives me the most satisfaction—especially when a student shares their perseverance story and then shows me their diploma, usually with a huge grin.