When I was a little scientist in the making, I remember a friend of mine at school had some sort of amazing family connection and invited an astronaut to come to our elementary school. That memory is etched in my brain – I can remember the orange NASA suit he brought in like it was yesterday. A few lucky classmates got to try on the helmet, and I saw crossed legged on the carpet, soaking up every word that astronaut said. To me, he was a celebrity. He was larger than life, cooler than cool, and doing things that I perhaps never would be able to. I remember spending the next year completely entranced in space travel and made plans to someday work for NASA.

When I was teaching my 6th grade earth science class last year, I had my students watch a clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the very smooth and cool astrophysicist, talk about falling into a black hole. My students were engrossed in the clip – not only because black holes are super awesome, but because Neil deGrasse Tyson pulled them in. After the video one of my students joked that, “he’d be a cool guy to hang out with and talk science”. We had some great dialogue about the lesson and clip, class ended, and I went home.  They asked if we could get Mr. deGrasse Tyson in for an assembly, to which I repied an, “I WISH!”.

When I got home, I had a nudge to do something I probably wouldn’t normally have done.  I had the urge to thank Neil deGrasse Tyson.. I found his website,  and despite the disclaimer warning of no response due to the large volumes of emails he receives, I sent along a comment anyway. I simply thanked him for making science interesting, accessible, and entertaining.

The next morning, while I was checking my email in study hall, I couldn’t believe I had a response from what I thought and hoped was the real Neil deGrasse Tyson – American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and popularizer of science!  His note was short and simple, but it stirred in me that little girl sitting on that carpet waiting for her turn to try on the astronaut helmet….

Dear Ms Duver,

Thank you for your kind words below.  I try hard to bring the universe down to Earth.  I am glad to learn that I occasionally succeed.

All the best,

NDTyson

As someone who had chosen to dedicate her career to turning young students to science, I couldn’t contain my excitement.  My students asked why I was beaming from ear to ear, and I thought for a second that they might chuckle if they knew how much that simple note meant to me. I took a chance and told my students that Neil deGrasse Tyson just sent me an email.

“That famous guy in the video? For REAL?”.

“Can we read it?”

“Write him back and tell him we said Hi!”

“That’s so cool – you know a science celebrity!”

“Can we visit his work – that planetarium?”

“He was on a show my Mom watched the the other day – that’s crazy!”

My students still talk about me getting that simple email, and although it wasn’t an astronaut with an orange suit standing in front of them, my students still felt like they had a brush with science greatness. Just as that astronaut shaped the way I viewed science after that day in 5th grade, perhaps a few of my students imagined about how cool it would be to study the expanses of space like NDTyson.

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About Tina Duver

Tina Duver is the Dean of Middle School Students at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, New York. She is the 6th and 8th Grade Science Teacher and coach of the First Lego League team and U.S. Department of Energy Science Bowl team.

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