On the road to educate area youth, the Motlow STEM program’s portable planetarium crossed the 5,000-mile mark for visiting schools following a trip to Kittrell School in Rutherford County, according to Billy Hix, Motlow associate professor and STEM program director.
The Motlow STEM program works to teach students about the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Motlow’s STEM program has been featured on Public Broadcasting System television, MTSU and state Department of Education video series and podcast. The Motlow program, which began in 1986, is the most consistent and longest running STEM outreach program of any state college or university in Tennessee.
During the life of the portable planetarium, now almost two years old, Hix has made over 140 school visits and over 12,000 students and teachers have been part of his nationally recognized programs.
“I’m humbled by what 5,000 miles really means,” said Hix.
Hix began conducting STEM programs for teachers and students in 1986. A retired couple, who wishes to remain anonymous, donated the money so that the STEM program could purchase the planetarium. Hix’s first school visits with the planetarium were to Walter Hill School in Rutherford County and Flintville School in Lincoln County.
Hix, who has worked as an astronomer for NASA, said his passion for visiting schools to teach about space began back when he was in elementary school.
“When I was in the fifth grade, we were about to land on the moon, and I was nuts about learning about space, stars and the space program,” said Hix. “At my little four-room country school, no one else was interested, and I wanted someone to speak to us about space.”
The lack of space education in his youth drove Hix to reach out to others.
“Well, my teacher told me that we were going to have a speaker, but the speaker was from CO-OP and he talked about fertilizer,” added Hix. “I told my mom that I was going to visit schools and find people just like me, and we were going to learn about the space program.”
Inspired by his experience as a student who was raised in a rural area, Hix desires to teach students who might not otherwise have any exposure to astronomy.
“I work hard to make sure to visit schools that are rural and higher poverty, but I will visit any school as I see myself as a hungry-to-learn little lad when I visit,” he continued. “It is a passion that I have to share science and the night sky with our youth.”
Since those first visits to Rutherford and Lincoln counties almost two years ago, the planetarium and Hix have been a popular guest for area schools.
“One reason our planetarium is in demand is that the program that we conduct has been closely aligned with the standards that the classroom teachers have to teach,” Hix added. “In that manner, we become a partner with every school we visit.”
In February 2014, the American Astronomical Society awarded Hix with their Master Outreach Award, an award that is given to an individual who has made a difference in the understanding of astronomy science across the nation.
The Clayton Family Foundation has pledged $500,000 to the Motlow College Foundation’s STEM endowment fund. The endowment program will continue in perpetuity at Motlow, according to Dr. MaryLou Apple, president of the college.