When the Classroom is Outer Space
Ben Malphrus, director of the Space Science Center at Morehead State University
Ben Malphrus was just 9 years old the night he discovered what he wanted to do with his life.
He and his mother had traveled to Savannah, Ga., to take part in an amateur astronomy night. He peered through an eight-inch telescope up at the starry night sky and fell awestruck at what he saw: the rings of Saturn — magical, mysterious and millions of miles away.
“I looked at that and thought, ‘They will pay you to study this for a living?’” he said.
It was a moment that Malphrus, who now directs the Space Science Center at Morehead State University, said is typical for those who end up pursuing a career in the sciences.
“Often students can trace their inspiration to a single event,” Malphrus said, adding that the wonder he experienced as a nine-year-old set him on a career path to study astrophysics and aerospace engineering.
And life-altering moments like his, Malphrus says, illustrate why KET plays an essential role in the Commonwealth, bringing the powers of math and science to children at a young age and planting seeds that could influence the direction of their lives.
“KET does so many incredible things to promote the sciences and STEM careers in Kentucky,” Malphrus said. “One, of course, is the wonderful programming that we see from KET and PBS — and so much of that programming is inspirational. But what’s extraordinary is the outreach that KET does in the school systems.”
Last year, KET’s K-12 consultants visited more than 350 schools, and KET’s early childhood consultants visited almost 75 counties. In addition, Kentucky students and teachers streamed more than two million KET digital resources.
“The KET outreach programs come in and help teachers understand how to present STEM content in innovative ways,” he added. “And that can make a huge difference in children’s lives.”
Malphrus says the applied space science field has exploded in size over the past 10 years. In fact, the aerospace industry has become Kentucky’s leading export manufacturer, comprising some 600 companies and employing more than 17,500 Kentuckians.
“We use space for virtually everything — and most people don’t realize it,” Malphrus said. “So there are lots of opportunities for those who want to do this kind of work in Kentucky.”
It’s important, Malphrus says, that students get hands-on experience early in their studies, he said, so they can start making connections between all the various fields — math, astronomy, computer coding, applied engineering — that come into play when putting a satellite into space.
“Kids don’t typically have a lot of role models for scientists and engineers,” Malphrus said. “But KET, through its programming and school services, provides incredible exposure to those STEM fields for students. And I think that is an invaluable resource.”