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Rocket Scientist to STEM Teacher: Why I Applied to Teach For America

TFA alum becomes a role model for students pursuing STEM.

Chemistry classwork on a whiteboard.

By Natalia Chabebe

January 14, 2015

Before joining Teach For America, I earned a bachelor’s degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in mechanical engineering with high honors and accepted a position working at Hamilton Sundstrand as a mechanical design engineer. Here I worked designing, manufacturing, and testing space hardware for the next generation space vehicle that NASA is building for future space exploration.

While working full-time as an engineer, I also obtained a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. These experiences allowed me to follow my passion, but they also drove home how rare it is to be a young Latina in engineering, and how necessary it is for there to be more diversity in the STEM fields; this led me to apply to TFA. I am currently in my third year of teaching high school physics.

There are few role models that look like me in the STEM fields, and so I took it upon myself to change that. I thought that being a teacher in a very strong STEM subject would allow me to open the door to many young women and minorities who maybe do not know about engineering or science careers, or who might not think that they are capable of pursuing these kinds of careers. It is imperative that we have more diverse individuals leading the way in STEM fields, to give not only themselves a voice, but also to speak on behalf of their communities.

Despite having worked as what my friends called a “rocket scientist,” teaching has by far been the most intellectually and emotionally challenging work I have ever done. The reality of teaching in an inner-city school is several orders of magnitude tougher than I expected, and every day, I challenge my students to become problem solvers. I am determined that when they leave my class, and eventually high school, they have the tools they need to continue their education and find fulfilling careers.

I still remember how nervous I was when I considered leaving the career I spent so many years in school for. What I didn’t realize at the time that is obvious to me now is that teaching a STEM subject is just as much of a STEM career as designing space hardware. I am constantly solving physics problems (and teenager problems), designing not only lesson plans but also a bottle rocket launcher and explaining quantum physics—all while analyzing students’ work.

The TFA experience varies for everyone, but when I stand in front of my classroom I feel like I have found where I belong. I hope you, too, will make a difference and consider submitting an application to Teach For America.