Todd J. Barber, JPL

Todd Barber, engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, contributes our first blog. Mr. Barber is involved the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), and most recently and visibly, on the Martian rover, Curiosity. He reflects on this work and its implication for inspiring students into STEM careers.

I recently had the great honor and privilege of visiting the tri-cities area (Kingsport, Johnson City, and Jonesborough) in northeastern Tennessee for the National Storytelling Festival and a NASA Education Workshop for local K-12 STEM teachers.  In fact, I have been blessed to enjoy this opportunity for the last few years, thanks to the generosity of my home institution, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and the Cassini Mission to Saturn Outreach Office and Alice Wessen in particular.  It is sometimes difficult to make time for outreach opportunities such as this, but I feel it is important to “give back” to the education community that gave me so much, helping me realize my dream job as a propulsion engineer on some of NASA’s most storied robotic planetary missions.  In my twenty-two years at JPL, I’ve been fortunate to work on the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), Deep Space One, Deep Impact, and Stardust (three comet missions), and most recently and visibly, on the Martian rover, Curiosity.  Quite literally from childhood, I dreamed of working at JPL, building upon missions such as the Voyager mission to the outer planets and the Viking landers on Mars.  In fact, these two missions inspired me directly to pursue B.S. and M.S. degrees in aerospace engineering from MIT and attain my childhood dream job.  This is my first job, and I hope it is my last—but I wouldn’t be here without the great support of my K-12 public school teachers, particularly those in STEM disciplines.

Even though our society is becoming more and more tech savvy, ironically we know less and less about the technology we are using, and increasingly it is designed and manufactured outside the U.S.  Inexpensive third-world labor certainly contributes to this, but so does the lack of STEM emphasis and careers within this country.  Study after study shows STEM skill preeminence slipping in the U.S. vs. other countries in the world, and to me this trend is heading in the wrong direction for the 21st century.  I believe NASA and other organizations may be uniquely qualified to help inspire students into STEM careers, because of its broad public appeal and “coolness” factor.  Thankfully, NASA and JPL devote 1-2% of their total project budget to outreach efforts, and within the very real time constraints of my “day job,” I try to do as much outreach as possible.  Watching teachers in the tri-cities area “light up” during our recent educator workshop makes all of our efforts to travel across the country worthwhile.  When a teacher tells us they will use our curriculum materials directly in their classroom, that year, we know we have helped make a difference, and that is our fondest goal.  In addition, visiting local TN schools directly and speaking with students, parents, and teachers about (for example) landing a 2000-pound “car” on the red planet helps me remember why I love my job in the first place.

I am very appreciative of my K-12 public school education in Kansas, particularly the tireless support of my own STEM discipline teachers.  Many days after school, my middle school chemistry teacher would stay behind, helping me execute the most bold experiments I could find (likely at great personal risk!), never fretting about coming home from school late most evenings.  My high school math, physics, and astronomy teachers were unbelievably gifted educators, too, nurturing every bit of natural interest I had in math and science.  If I have helped give back to K-12 education through my outreach work, even a little bit, it is well worth any effort I have put forth in this arena.  My favorite high school math teacher wrote something in my yearbook that I keep with me always.  She said, “Whatever your successes in life, please take a little piece of me along with you.”  I’ve never forgotten that, as I hope the students, teachers, and parents with whom I’ve interacted in TN will fondly remember our time together, as I do.  I hope I have inspired a few students in the tri-cities area to pursue STEM careers, for that is the true purpose for my annual visit in October every year.  I also wish to thank everyone who enabled our NASA outreach odyssey in northeastern Tennessee, particularly Dr. Jack Rhoton, the Executive Director for the Center of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Education at ETSU.  Jack, I believe we have really set up something very special in our affiliation, and I hope we are able to work together for many years—not only bringing hands-on, useful tools directly to K-12 STEM educators in northeastern TN, but also providing inspiration and awe to the students in your state.  I do hope to see you next year!  Thank you.


Todd J. Barber

Senior Propulsion Engineer

Jet Propulsion Laboratory
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, California 91109

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