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Award-Winning Museum Educator Trystan Popish

Posted by Brianne Leith on August 6, 2014


Alumna is Award-Winning Museum Educator  

Trystan Popish (SF08) wasn’t an expert in aviation when she took a job as an informal science educator at the Museum of Flight’s Aviation Learning Center in Seattle, Washington. As an intern at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum during graduate school, she learned how to explain space exploration to 5-year-olds, but she still had a steep learning curve ahead of her. So, like any good St. John’s alum, she kept her ears and eyes open in order to get up to speed.

“I hate it when I don’t know what other people are talking about,” says Popish. She learned using the same tools she employs for the school groups that come on field trips to the Aviation Learning Center (ALC)—exhibits that break down flight into the basics of how and why planes fly, as well as flight simulators and a real airplane to explore.

Now, three years later, Popish has received the Wendell G. Mohling Outstanding Aerospace Educator Award from the National Science Teachers Association. She was nominated by her co-workers and honored for her accomplishments at the National Conference on Science Education, in Boston, in April 2014. She has proven herself as an outstanding educator by overseeing a number of technological upgrades to the ALC, as well as working with the University of Washington’s Startalk program on a Russian-language version of the ALC. Popish also coordinates the annual WomenFly! event at the museum. It’s a program designed to address the gender imbalance in the aviation industry by introducing about 200 middle and high school girls to women who work in the field. The women speak on panels, lead workshops, and participate in other affiliated events. Popish never has trouble finding volunteers for WomenFly! Professionals from a variety of air and space careers offer their time eagerly and gratefully, says Popish, because this kind of program didn’t exist for them when they were young.

“A lot of them were the only [woman] in their college physics program, for instance, or whatever they went into,” she explains. Only about six percent of commercial pilots are women, and pilots are an aging population, with a good number set to retire in the coming years. The field is wide open for those interested in flight as well as other areas, such as astronomy or space exploration.

Most days, Popish guides school children through flight simulation in the ALC. One of the activities prior to getting in the simulators is to inspect a real airplane and make sure everything is in working order. Popish does some sabotage to make sure the students find things that need to be fixed, which they have not been warned  about before they are set loose to examine the plane. She has the wrong fuel type loaded, and some of the screws are loose on the nose of the plane. But the real treat for students is when they check to make sure the air intake is clear, so that the engine will be able to cool down properly.

“We have a bird’s nest and a fake bird in there, because birds will build nests in the intake if you leave a plane outside for too long,” says Popish. “The kids are always so scandalized by the bird!”

Popish’s museum education degree from George Washington University prepared her to work in any museum education program, regardless of specific focus. She sees herself working in an art museum some day, but for now she’s taken in by flight. One of the most exciting things Popish has done as a perk of working at the Museum of Flight is actually fly a plane. A sales representative from Cirrus Aircraft took small groups of ALC staff up in a plane and let each person take the controls for a bit.

“I was in the third group to go,” says Popish. “The first group came back, and they all had these huge smiles on their faces. And then the second group came back, and they were smiling big, too. When I came back, I completely got it. I would love to be a pilot at some point in the future.”

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