Youth inspired by science of STAR EX program

Those attending camp at St. John Neumann learn about astronomy, rocketry, robotics, and more

By Bill Brewer

As a young girl, Tara Cotten loved to recite the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are!”

Now, Dr. Tara Cotten, a professor with a Ph.D. in astronomy and physics, teaches her two young sons a new version of the popular rhyme: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, now I know just what you are!”

Dr. Cotten, who will be teaching at St. John Neumann School in Farragut for the 2024-25 academic year, loves to share her interest in space with students. And she did just that when she was one of several experts who spoke to students participating in the STAR EX program at St. John Neumann.

The first STAR EX camp for middle school and high school students was held on Saturday, March 23, at St. John Neumann School. The camp was presented by the Tennessee Civil Air Patrol and featured talks by astronauts Don Thomas and John Shoffner.

Topics covered during the one-day camp included space exploration, telescopes, and astronomy as well as rocketry, robotics, satellites, rovers, and drones in space. There were 30 students and 27 Civil Air Patrol cadets taking part. CAP cadets range in age from 12 to 21.

Dr. Cotten’s husband, Dr. David Cotten, who is a scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, also spoke to groups of young Civil Air Patrol cadets and Diocese of Knoxville students.

Dave Wells, external aerospace education officer for the Tennessee Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, leads Civil Air Patrol cadets in an interstellar exercise. (Photo Bill Brewer)

Father Joe Reed, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish and School, worked with Dave Wells, who served as mission coordinator for STAR EX and is a volunteer with the Civil Air Patrol, in putting on the program.

“Dave Wells has always been one of the best educators I’ve known in the diocese, and he has a huge passion for science and space and just a passion for education. He was involved in Civil Air Patrol when he was a kid,” Father Reed explained, noting that he wished he had been exposed to the Civil Air Patrol when he was young.

“Dave said, ‘Hey, we have this great chance. You have a great school. We can really capitalize on the wonder and all the great resources here in the Knoxville area.’ He started working with some scientists, the Civil Air Patrol, and got in touch with astronauts, and it all just came together. We had some of our teachers certified as Civil Air Patrol educators,” Father Reed said. “STAR EX is great. I have a nephew who went through it, and he loved it. He had a phenomenal day. A whole lot of people from a whole lot of backgrounds came together to have a great experience and make use of all the incredible things we have here in East Tennessee.”

Father Reed was enthusiastic about enhancing St. John Neumann School’s curriculum with the science and technology aspects of STAR EX.

“It really is making use of the unique place that East Tennessee has in science, and what a perfect intersection where you have wonder and creation, and caring for that, and also this wonder that wants to look into creation and understand it more. Also, just the hunger that we have as humans to know more about creation. It was great,” he added.

Father Reed pointed out that students from St. John Neumann were joined by students from other schools. He also credited the Cottens for offering their background in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—to St. John Neumann School. The Cottens and their young children are St. John Neumann parishioners.

He noted that the parish and school have a number of members and parents involved in the STEM fields, adding that Sacred Heart Cathedral School and Knoxville Catholic High School enjoy similar support.

He praised Diocese of Knoxville schools and their teachers who take advantage of East Tennessee’s rich background in science and technology to benefit diocesan students.

“The Church isn’t meant to be a fortress against the world. The Church is the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God goes everywhere. And if we are going to go out into the world, the kingdom of God has to go there,” Father Reed said.

Dave Wells talks to students taking part in the STAR EX program in the St. John Neumann School gym. (Photo Bill Brewer)

Mr. Wells serves as the external aerospace education officer for the Tennessee Wing of the Civil Air Patrol and helps promote aerospace education for the organization in schools.

He said STAR EX is a project he and Father Reed for several months discussed doing. He noted that the Civil Air Patrol makes lesson plans and STEM kits available for teachers to use in their classrooms.

The STAR EX moniker is a play on a Civil Air Patrol mission called SAR EX, which means search and rescue exercise. Mr. Wells came up with the idea for the Space, Telescopes, Astronomy, Rocketry and Robotics Exercise. “That’s the acronym. Being a paramilitary organization, we like acronyms,” he noted.

He explained that he joined the Civil Air Patrol as a cadet when he was 12 years old and living in Mississippi. His two older brothers were in the U.S. Air Force. He pointed out that the Civil Air Patrol was founded in 1941, a week before Pearl Harbor, as part of the Office of Civil Defense as the United States was preparing for World War II. And during World War II, the Civil Air Patrol became an auxiliary of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The Civil Air Patrol cadet program was a training ground for pilots who served in World War II. The cadet program still is in existence and now extends to younger ages to inspire interest in aeronautics.

“There is so much opportunity in both aviation and space exploration. We have a huge shortage of pilots in this country. A lot of aviation experts and a lot of airlines are waking up to that and are trying to put aviation on the radar for young people,” Mr. Wells said.

His emphasis, however, is on the space portion of aerospace education, which is where he said his passion lies.

“I’m an amateur astronomer, and I want young people to see the opportunities that are going to be out there, both for STEM careers and as educated citizens who are excited about all the things we are discovering in space, all the missions we are doing. We’re going back to the moon, and eventually we are going to Mars. It may take us 25 years to get there,” he shared.

“I always ask the question: How many of you are 13 years old? And those who are 13 raise their hands. And then I ask them, ‘How old will you be in 25 years?’ They put it together and they say ‘38.’ Then I always tell them ‘Neil Armstrong was 38 years old when he stepped foot on the moon. The first person to walk on Mars is alive today. They just don’t know they’re going to Mars, and it could be one of you.’ Then I see the light bulb go off in their head. They really are going to be witnesses to this. They may be participating as an engineer or a scientist or an enthusiastic space proponent,” Mr. Wells said. “They catch the vision. And that’s what I’m here to do: inspire them.”

Maj. David Hoover (left), Cadet 1st Lt. Maggie Gallaher, 1st Lt. Susan Gallaher, and 2nd Lt. Zachary Johnson represented the Civil Air Patrol in leadership roles at the daylong STAR EX camp on March 23 at St. John Neumann School. The Civil Air Patrol leaders hope the camp will be held again in 2025. (Photo Bill Brewer)

His intention is “to ignite their imagination. To think about these things and become inspired.”

And his encouragement is broader than air and space travel.

He cites many amenities necessary for living in today’s society, such as automobiles, smart phones, computers, medical and manufacturing advances, and communications as examples of the exciting ways technology affects everyone.

Dr. Cotten agrees with Father Reed and Mr. Wells.

“This is when you start sparking the curiosity for this,” Dr. Cotten said about the young students taking part in STAR EX. “This is how you start inspiring students for the future.”

Dr. Cotten recalls visiting the University of Toledo planetarium as a young student, which inspired her to pursue a vocation in the sciences.

Susan Gallaher of Maryville is a volunteer in the Civil Air Patrol, and her 19-year-old daughter, Maggie Gallaher, is a second lieutenant cadet in the CAP who was taking part in a leadership role with the STAR EX program.

“I’ve been in the Civil Air Patrol for about two years now. I joined because I thought it would be fun, and it definitely is. I was excited to get to wear the uniform. But more than that, I saw people who knew where they wanted to go in life, and that was something that attracted me. They are people who are positive influences on me,” said Maggie, who is a recent high school graduate.

Maggie said her main goals in the Civil Air Patrol are to learn as much as she can about aerospace and leadership and to share those tools with the next generation of cadets.

“I’m here (at St. John Neumann School’s STAR EX program) to share the love of aerospace that CAP has given me,” Maggie said. “I hope to be a role model. I don’t really think of myself that way, but I try to create a standard that I want to live up to so other people can see what’s possible and to be an example of the role models in my life.”

She shared that she loves the science and engineering behind flight as well as the leadership aspect of Civil Air Patrol.

Students in the STAR EX program release soft-material rockets they made themselves as part of a STEM exercise. (Photo Bill Brewer)

Susan Gallaher pointed out that Maggie is an artist, and the Civil Air Patrol has been a positive influence on her artistic talents and helped her develop leadership and management skills so that she could start a portrait business in Maryville.

Like Maggie, Susan has been in the Civil Air Patrol for two years. Susan said she got involved in the volunteer aviation program because her children were involved.

She has witnessed tremendous growth in her daughters since they joined CAP, such as leadership and discipline.

She and her daughters are members of the Tennessee 148th Squadron at McGhee Tyson Airport. While many senior members of the Civil Air Patrol are former military personnel, Susan noted that military service isn’t the focus of CAP. She said the focus is to open up all aspects of aviation to young students.

David Hoover, a major in the Civil Air Patrol who has been affiliated with the organization for more than 20 years, said he hoped the students taking part in STAR EX learned to explore areas outside of their comfort zones, such as space, aviation, and technology.

Roger Middleton of Oliver Springs is the state internal aerospace education officer for the Civil Air Patrol and a squadron commander in Knoxville. Mr. Middleton said he is a good example of how the Civil Air Patrol can positively affect a young student’s life. He was a cadet as a young man and developed a lifelong vocation in aviation.

So, he was excited to share what he knows with area students attending the STAR EX camp.

“As the astronaut said during his presentation, these are the young people who are going to go to Mars. These are the young people, the generation who are going to be getting people to Mars,” Mr. Middleton said.

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