Middlesboro community members, including educators, students, parents, elected officials and others, gathered for a live video call with Astronaut John Shoffner on May 26 at Middlesboro Independent's Central Arts Auditorium.

Middlesboro community members, including educators, students, parents, elected officials and others, gathered for a live video call with Astronaut John Shoffner on May 26 at Middlesboro Independent’s Central Arts Auditorium. (Photo by Wallace Caleb Bates, Kentucky Department of Education)

(MIDDLESBORO, Ky.) — Middlesboro Independent School students had an astronomical opportunity on May 26 when astronaut John Shoffner talked with students via video call from the International Space Station (ISS).

Shoffner, a Bell County native, is a well-achieved business leader, racecar driver and more. He is currently serving as the pilot for Axiom Space’s Ax-2 mission to the ISS on the SpaceX Dragon.

It’s a role Shoffner said he has prepared his whole life to fulfill and he wanted to include students as part of this opportunity.

“Including Middlesboro in my journey to the ISS was an automatic requirement of mine,” he said. “My role as an astronaut should be used to inspire a higher level of achievement for students.”

While seated in the Central Arts Auditorium for their discussion, students’ curiosities resulted in numerous questions. They asked about his daily tasks, sneezing and food quality in space and more.

Jackson Womack, a rising 6th grader, asked if he got homesick. Shoffner said no because he brought Middlesboro along with him in many ways.

A boy sits in an auditorium, He has his hand rasied.

Jackson Womack is a rising 6th-grader at Middlesboro Middle School. He has enjoyed learning about astronauts, aeronautics, space and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) concepts. History is his favorite subject — he recognized the momentous occasion of the John Shoffner event. (Photo by Wallace Caleb Bates, Kentucky Department of Education)

Shoffner found his love for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education during his experience as a student in Middlesboro Independent Schools.

“Growing up in the 1960s, the space race had just begun, and it was truly captivating,” he said. “We had a young astronaut’s club in Middlesboro, so I, of course, planned to be an astronaut.”

Chris Stotts, Middlesboro Independent’s director of STEM, thanked Shoffner for his efforts to help Middlesboro Middle School develop its STEM program.

“Because of my interests in STEM topics as a young student in Middlesboro, I have supported the development of STEM programs at Middlesboro Middle School,” Shoffner said. “Both students and teachers have shown great interest and excitement to use STEM tools to raise the attention of students in new ways of learning and problem-solving.”

Middlesboro sits within a meteorite crater over three miles wide. As one of the only towns in North America calling a meteorite impact site home, existing within the crater is a key element of Middlesboro’s community-wide identity.

Art students in Middlesboro Independent designed a special emblem, or flight patch for astronauts’ suits, coining the “Beyond the Crater” phrase. During the event on May 26, many students dawned shirts with the patch design on them. The design was displayed in public spaces throughout the community.

Leading up to Shoffner’s launch and the event, Middlesboro students learned about aeronautics, aerospace and more.

During the event, students partook in an activity designed to teach them about gravity, laws of motion and other scientific elements. Students dropped ping-pong balls on the ground in front of their seats; while theirs bounced against the ground, Shoffner showed one floating in front of him.

For Stotts, experiences like these make learning fun.

A man is standing, talking to an audience. He is holding a piece of paper.

Chris Stotts, director of STEM education for Middlesboro Independent, realized John Shoffner’s vision for the district: a beacon of science, technology, engineering and math possibilities in rural eastern Kentucky. Stotts continues to work closely with Shoffner to expand student access and opportunity. (Photo by Wallace Caleb Bates, Kentucky Department of Education)

Stotts’ said his passion for STEM education empowered him to lead and realize Shoffner’s vision for the district.

“I just really bought into the vision and saw its potential here in the community,” Stotts said. “I had to be a part of it.”

Located in rural eastern Kentucky, Stotts said Middlesboro is geographically isolated.

“Many of our kids — they just don’t have the ability to access opportunity outside of where we live. So a word that I’ve really hung to through this entire process and experience is ‘exposure'”, he said. “Exposure is so important for our kids because so many of them lack those exposure opportunities.”

According to Stotts, this experience will allow kids to see beyond the crater – both literally and metaphorically.

“These activities and John’s experience and his willingness to include us as part of his experience, that’s opening these doors of exposure to these kids,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that that they are from a small rural town in Appalachia. They, too, can fulfill those dreams and meet those ambitions.”

Womack, whose primary academic interest is history, said he understood the significance of the event and Shoffner’s mission. He said it meant a lot to him as a student.

“John Shoffner, he grew up in Middlesboro. He went beyond, into outer space,” Womack said. “That tells me to never give up. Even though it’s a smalltown, even though you grew up here, you can still do big things.”