Tennessee Astronaut Butch Wilmore Tours The State To Tout Science

Oct 27, 2016

You could say Butch Wilmore has star power.

The Tennessee native is an astronaut who spent six months on the International Space Station, and students at William Henry Oliver Middle School in Nashville were clearly excited that he was visiting Thursday. The school band welcomed him with a Star Wars medley. Students lined up to take selfies.

"How many of y'all would like to fly in space?" he asked the school assembly. About half the hands in the gym flew up. 

Wilmore was touring the state with the governor to promote Tennessee's recent gains on science test scores. The state lagged significantly in past years; Gov. Bill Haslam credits more difficult statewide testing for the improvements.

Wilmore's role on the tour was that of motivational speaker. He told the students, if he hadn't taken school seriously when he was their age, he wouldn't have been considered later in life to fly in space.

"Do y'all want to have the opportunity to do the things you desire to do?" he said. "Well, you are training right now for those opportunities."

Afterward, fifth grader Sawyer Morrison, who's in the school's STEM program, said he felt inspired to follow Wilmore's path.

"It made me feel like the people who are first on Mars could be a big achievement, and the kids from our generation could be the ones," he said.

This kind of enthusiasm is what Wilmore is going for, and he's embracing his status as a high-profile Tennessean to become something of an ambassador for the sciences. Even though he lives in Texas for his job at NASA, he said he still feels more connected to his home state.

His education advocacy isn't limited to middle school: Haslam also recently appointed Wilmore to serve on the new board of the astronaut's alma mater, Tennessee Tech University.

Gender Gap

One of Haslam's talking points on his tour was the narrowing of the "achievement gap" on science testing. He noted that students across demographics scored higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2015, but minority students are improving faster and catching up to white students.

And the gender gap, he noted, has completely disappeared.

"Sorry about this, boys. In the past, boys have always done better than girls on science tests, but not anymore," he said, as a high-pitched cheer went up from the bleachers at Oliver Middle.

In fact, in some cases, the gap has more than disappeared. Among Tennessee eighth graders who were tested last year, girls actually scored two points higher than boys on the science assessment.