Prof reflects on 45 years at UHCL, linking science educators to NASA
Back in August of 1975, the construction of University of Houston-Clear Lake's campus was barely complete. Robert Jones, who had been employed at NASA as a missions planning and operations officer in the Public Affairs Office, was awarded a one-year visiting professorship position, at University of Houston's main campus.
He didn't even know there was a Clear Lake campus — much less that he would spend the next 45 years teaching there.
"I had been working at NASA for four years, when I received a NASA-funded doctoral fellowship to Oklahoma State University," Jones said. "When I returned to Houston, I accepted the visiting professorship starting in fall 1974."
Shortly after, NASA asked Jones to design a joint teacher-education program with UH-Clear Lake. "Until that time, Johnson Space Center had not allowed any teacher-educational programs to occur on site," he said. " I didn't even know a university existed in Clear Lake. A NASA official told me it was there when he was telling me about the Armand Bayou Nature Center."
Jones said he started meeting with UHCL and NASA JSC representatives in the Bayou Building, which was only beginning to be functional.
"I accepted the job offer from UHCL's first president, Alfred R. Neumann. I also developed a close relationship with the leadership at NASA JSC, who told me to start the Aerospace Institute, which was to be the only course open to both UHCL and UH students," said Jones, who is now a professor of Educational Foundations.
The Aerospace Institute Program pioneered a graduate education course that was held at the Johnson Space Center. Fifty teachers could enroll and attend briefings, presentations, field experiences in labs, and site visits to JSC and to Ellington Air Force Base — the first time a group of educators was allowed to meet at JSC for an extended period of time.
The first Aerospace Institute was held in June 1976, and marked the beginning of a unique 20-year relationship between the university system and NASA-JSC.
"Over 100 people signed up for this course right away," he said. "The UHCL campus wasn't entirely complete yet, so we took 50 students from UH main campus and had a successful institute that year."
The Institute, said Jones, became a wonderful recruitment device for UHCL. He taught math and science education courses throughout the school year, as well as special leadership courses. When summer came, he taught full-time in the Aerospace Institute.
"The Aerospace Institute generated 600-700 graduate students, and it wasn't just about the courses," he said. "It was developing educators to prepare for a career in aerospace. The Institute is what kept me here. The support from NASA was endless — including from crew members and astronauts."
And although his initial purpose in coming to Clear Lake was his interest in Armand Bayou Nature Center, where he was the acting director of education, he said he's a science educator at heart because of his connections and relationships with NASA.
His years of close collaboration with NASA resulted in an exceptional partnership with the university — and some spectacular artifacts.
"I've got space heat shields from Apollo, Gemini and Mercury, and I even have Gus Grissom's training map from when he went through astronaut training," he said, adding he intends to donate his collection to Space Center Houston, so others can appreciate and continue learning from it.
Over the course of his career, Jones said he'd traveled to over 500 schools around the country to talk about NASA-related programs. "I feel called to be an educator," he said. "I've enjoyed developing curricula and training programs, which I've done across industries, and I've helped start the curriculum library here at UHCL," he said. "I've had wonderful colleagues who were interested in cooperative learning. It's also why I was interested in co-authoring science textbooks for children."
Jones co-authored 28 sciences texts for elementary-aged children between 1998-2004, writing the sections about space and physical science, including a widely-distributed text published by Harcourt in 1998.
He said he looked back upon his years at UHCL with happiness, partly because he had such a good relationship with former College of Education Dean Dennis Spuck.
"He was the longest-serving dean in the College of Education, and not only did he support my work with the Aerospace Institute, he became a co-researcher," he said. "Those were exciting years."
Jones has no intention of slowing down. "This fall, I'll be teaching Theories of Educational Psychology, which is a core course required by all teacher certification programs," he said. "I'm not retiring because I'm still having fun. My students energize me every time I am in the classroom; every time they send me an e-mail; every time they give me a call and engage about class," he said. "And even now, the pandemic has allowed me to remain connected with my students as we talk much more frequently online and on the phone. I derive so much pleasure from mentoring my students into becoming the person and the teacher they are meant to be."
He added that he hoped his students were learning skills they'd use the rest of their lives. "I want them to learn content, but more so, I hope they learn cognitive, lifelong skills that go way beyond the classroom," he said. "I hope they take what they learn from my class and use it as teachers to help their own students learn."
To learn more about degree options in UHCL's College of Education, go online.