Sunday, May 28, 2023

From NASA to the classroom: an unexpected journey


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By Blake Jennings
Staff writer

At 56 and with stark silver hair, physics professor and former NASA engineer, Eric Klumpe (kloom-pa) conveys a youthful and laid-back presence.

“Hey dude,” he can be heard saying, sporting a Northface vest, black glasses and a likable, wry smirk.

His small, rectangular office space resembles a meeting ground shared by both athletes and intellectuals. Posters of triathlons and surfing are plastered along the walls right next to a bookcase filled with multiple, dense physics textbooks.

In a corner stands a tall plastic plant with blossoming faux flowers, each one representing a planet, with the large stem symbolizing the infinite stretch of the solar system. It is one of the many gifts from students, who are a high priority in his life. He invests personal time in their education, offering time slots on the front of his door to any student who wants to talk about anything: life, the universe, culture, sports or motorcycles.

A place in physics

From a young age, Klumpe, was drawn to the intricate inner workings of machines.

“I remember when I was young. All I wanted was to be like my dad,” Klumpe said. “He worked at a power plant. But all I knew was that he was good with his hands. He built the whole second story to our house and was always working on cars. At school they said, ‘Draw a picture of what your dad does for a living,’ and I drew a picture of my dad working on the engine of a pick-up truck. Not because he did that, but because I saw him do it.”

During childhood, Klumpe had a budding interest in science, making his own chemistry sets out of kitchen supplies. For a time, he even thought of being a doctor.

“I think that’s because my mother told me it was a really hard job,” he said.

Similar to most teenagers, Klumpe entered high school with a great sense of awkwardness and insecurity. As a 100-pound kid who spent his first years of school studying in the third-world nation of Panama where his family had moved there from New York when he was 8, he was unsure of where to fit in. But he eventually found a place.

“In high school I totally got into motorcycles and cars: V8s, noise, horsepower. It was then that I knew I was going to be an automobile mechanic. And I wanted that more than anything,” Klumpe said. “And so I started working on cars and making great friends; we called them ‘motorheads’ back then.”

When high school ended, Klumpe applied for a full-time job at a local mechanic shop. He had befriended most of the guys who worked there. Though he knew that he would start off as a pump jockey — a guy who pumped gas — after a few years he predicted he would be fixing cars. But one day Klumpe made a decision that would take his life on a different course.

Klumpe was noticed by a counselor after he and a friend decided to register for junior college.

“He must have assumed I was just there for an appointment,” Klumpe said. “[The counselor] said, ‘Come in here. We can talk.’ I don’t know why I went into his office. But we sat down and he said, ‘Are you interested in going to classes here?’ And I asked, ‘Well … I don’t know. What’s the hardest major you have at this institution?’ He said, ‘Physics.’ Then I replied, ‘Okay then. I’ll come if I can be a physics major.’”

Klumpe’s passion for difficulty had led to a decision that would end up redirecting the remaining course of his life. After graduating from prestigious schools such as the California Institute of Technology and Stanford, Klumpe became a design engineer for NASA, collaborating with large and specialized groups of designers, artists and scientists, all of whom worked together in shuttling space crafts out into the far reaches of the universe.

Those who love physics, teach physics

With a nostalgic sigh, Klumpe looks back on his past conquests that inspired him to be more than just an adviser.

“The way I look at my life now — my family, my wife, all the relationships I have … I say you know I could do that for other people. Just find out what students are good at, and tell to keep going, keep going, don’t settle for second best. People are capable … more capable than they realize. I’m not going to point fingers, but I think that’s one of my jobs … to encourage them to keep going.”

While in school, Klumpe ran into a multitude of teachers who impacted his life and made him feel special, keeping him from being second best. And now he sees teaching as an opportunity to pass on the torch, to inspire students in following their own aspirations.

“I see the classroom as a magical place,” Klumpe said. “When a person enters my class on the first day of a semester, by the end I feel I’ve done my job when they leave thinking, ‘That was time well-spent.’ I try to treat students as a whole people. They’ve got real life. I’m not an adviser; I’m not a counselor. But I can listen. I hate to think of them as astronomy students. There much, much more to me than that.”

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