A bond built in space: Teachers from different generations reflect on science education

Trumbull native Sarah Tropp reunites with her fifth grade teacher, Steve Spillane, at the Challenger Learning Center in the Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport earlier this spring.
Trumbull native Sarah Tropp reunites with her fifth grade teacher, Steve Spillane, at the Challenger Learning Center in the Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport earlier this spring.

Trumbull resident Sarah Tropp is an astronaut.

Ever since taking on the role of communications officer in her fifth grade class field trip to the Challenger Learning Center in the Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport, the young teacher has been dedicated to exploring science in our world and beyond — in outer space.

The 2011 Trumbull High School graduate credits her fifth grade science teacher, Steve Spillane, and his wife, Jessica Spillane, an English teacher, for inspiring her to pursue a job in education.

Her journey from Trumbull to Brown University has led her back home to the very hallways she once walked at the Discovery Museum, where she now works as a science educator.

“That’s exactly why I wanted to take this kind of job. Because I have memories of teachers like Mr. and Mrs. Spillane, education was where I knew I wanted to be because I wanted to have that kind of impact on kids’ lives,” Tropp told The Times.

Tropp is one of Trumbull’s lucky students who have had the pleasure to work with both pieces of the Spillane teaching dream team.

Mrs. Spillane, an English teacher and theater director at THS, has been with the Eagles since 1997. Through her tenure, she has directed 18 musicals, while mentoring many young actors, including Tropp and her two sisters.

“My sisters are in high school, so I see Mrs. Spillane and I see Mr. Spillane at the high school with the theater stuff that she does,” Tropp said.

An out-of-this-world reunion

At the beginning of March she had a conversation with her former fifth grade teacher and it became evident that the roles would soon be reversed — the student would now be the teacher.

She asked the Daniels Farm Elementary School teacher when his class would next visit the Challenger Learning Center so she could let him know if she would be running the program.

“l bumped into him again and said, ‘You’re coming to see me in a couple of weeks,’” she said.

When Spillane returned with his class this year, he found some wonderful surprises: an entirely refurbished Challenger Learning Center, featuring renovations recently completed on the spacecraft section, and a very familiar mission commander at the helm, who guided his students through the simulation.

Seeing Tropp guide his class made Spillane nostalgic about when she was his student — an eager learner who took to space, and science education, like a rocketship in flight.

“It doesn’t surprise me that a trip like this could lead somebody to work in this field,” he said.  

Not an everyday mission

Through a reservoir of positive teacher influences that stretched far beyond her favorite duo, Tropp has successfully found a fulfilling job — not easy in today’s world. And because of her journey, she has strived to impact her kids in ways that will educate them forever.

“Challenger is not an everyday thing for us,” she explained. “My favorite part that happens regularly is to see how excited the kids are.

“Whether it be somebody I see weekly through after-school programs or our outreach programs, I just like seeing how excited the kids get to see us and know that, hey, it’s time for science,” she said. “It’s really rewarding to see that they are happy that we’re here and enjoy the projects we provide.”

Although Tropp couldn’t pinpoint one specific thing that led her back to the Challenger Learning Center, she said the excitement of memories from her very own Challenger mission was reason enough.

Tropp applied to the museum when she first graduated from college and heard they were hiring.

She took the job in the hope of changing the reputation of the museum to be an exciting learning environment for all ages to enjoy.

“I know the museum had a reputation for a long time for being mostly for little kids,” the Trumbull resident explained. “Challenger, I remember very vividly as being something that I thought was very grown up and definitely something for big kids.

“I liked how important I felt in my role, and I think everyone else did, too,” she said.

Kids in charge

There is nothing like a fifth grade field trip, especially when it’s to the moon.

An educator for 20 years at Daniels Farm, Spillane has guided many students on an intergalactic scholastic mission to space with the help of the Discovery Museum’s Challenger Learning Center.

The center is a unique program that fully immerses young students in the roles of officers on a simulated space mission.

The Discovery Museum’s Challenger Learning Center is the only one of its kind in Connecticut and one of 40 centers connected on a global network that offers students the chance to work in specific defined roles, as well as on a team, in order to complete their mission.

Spillane recognizes the value of the program not only as a learning experience but also as a source of joyful, lifelong memories.  

“The students have often listed or mentioned the trip in our yearbook as one of their favorite trips at DFS,” Spillane told The Times.

The mission, as Mr. Spillane put it, is the perfect culminating experience to a year spent learning about the solar system.

Students perform a variety of science experiments that follow the same format as the Challenger program tasks, to allow for preparation for their final mission.

Through the Challenger program, kids learn about and experience how a simulated space mission can relate to the real world.

The center and its core objective is to push students to use careful analytic skills while learning to work together in a high-volume and confusing environment, much like life itself, while being exposed to the wonders of outer space.

“In one activity, the children need to prioritize a list of supplies by importance for if they were stranded on the moon,” Spillane said. “They learn how different items could be helpful while others are useless. They also realize the importance of team discussions in making these decisions.  

“The students also fill out a job application to select their role on board the spacecraft, such as the medical team, navigation, or Sarah’s role of communications officer.”

Throwing curveballs

Spillane joked that the students were so well prepared this year that when following the steps he provided for problem-solving in complicated situations, his probe officer pointed out that Spillane had skipped a step when trying to assist his students.

A particular favorite for Tropp is throwing the kids a curveball during the mission and seeing the team react and band together to work through it.

“One of my favorite things, now that I’m actually running missions, is seeing the nuts and bolts that go into making it happen,” she said. “I really enjoy getting to say, ‘Oh, this mission is going really smoothly — how can I cause a little chaos today?’ We throw emergencies at the kids like Uh-oh, your oxygen system isn’t configured properly, and you have five minutes of useful oxygen remaining unless life support solves the problem.”

Located six miles and about a 10-minute drive from Daniels Farm Elementary, Discovery Museum offers unique hands-on STEM learning opportunities to school groups from Trumbull, Fairfield, Bridgeport, and 28 other nearby cities and towns.