By Melanie Kieve
Early in his U.S. Army career, Colonel Patrick Forrester knew what he wanted to do with his life. The son of an Army officer, he graduated from West Point and was well on his way to becoming an Airborne Ranger.
Then, his career took a different trajectory, quite literally.
After a two-day patrol, Forrester experienced his first helicopter ride back to camp, legs dangled over the side of the helicopter. “I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,’” he said. “And then I saw the pilots flying the helicopter and it hit me. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
So he entered flight school and became an Army Aviator the next year. Then, years later, he read an article about the first person to serve as an Army astronaut, and found the same stirring within him that he had on the Army helicopter. “Now that’s what I want to do,” he said.
Eleven years, five applications, and two interviews later, Forrester again achieved his goal – all the while continuing his stellar Army career and completing a graduate degree from the University of Virginia. Since his NASA career began, he has participated in three missions to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttles Discovery and Atlantis, logging more than 16.4 million miles, 950 hours in space, and four spacewalks totaling more than 25 hours. Now retired from the Army, he continues to work for NASA.
Forrester shared his story during a June 24 orientation session for first-year students entering Clemson’s College of Health, Education, and Human Development (HEHD), where he is finishing his yearlong service as an adjunct professor on loan from NASA. He relayed his experiences, he said, to encourage incoming students to embrace all of the educational opportunities before them, even if their life or career goals are uncertain or change over time.
“I graduated from college in 1979 and the first space shuttle launched in 1981. So, how could I know what I wanted to ultimately do with my life? How could I know I would be a shuttle astronaut? It wasn’t even built yet. But, I had educational opportunities along the way that prepared me,” he told the group of students and parents. “That’s why the next four or five years of your life at Clemson are so important. Education is the key, and everything you need for success is right here.”
A Year in Local Schools
Forrester has been focused on the importance of education – particularly Integrative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education – during his year at the College of HEHD. He has been a constant presence in Pickens, Oconee and Anderson county schools, encouraging participation in Integrative STEM Education, which reinforces science and math concepts by allowing students to design and build objects such as gliders and balloon-powered toy cars.
Integrative STEM Education is a serious endeavor that brings relevance to learning, according to Forrester and other advocates. “This kind of project-based learning helps students to develop life skills such as solving problems, working in groups, and learning how to accept and learn from failure,” Forrester said, adding that students also learn budgeting and writing skills as they develop and evaluate projects.
The College of HEHD has partnered with local schools to incorporate Integrative STEM Education for years. Forrester has worked to raise its profile among teachers, administrators and students. “Because of my profession, I have a unique platform to say how important this is,” he said.
The importance, Forrester says, lies in Integrative STEM Education’s ability to engage students from the earliest of ages and prepare them to navigate life after high school. “Students need to be taught the skills they will need to excel in learning and the job market,” he said.
Coming Full Circle
As Forrester prepared to speak to the incoming HEHD students and reflected on his last days at Clemson before returning to NASA to train its next astronaut class, he said that his experiences over the last year have reinforced his deep appreciation of education and his resolve to give back.
“Everything that my teachers poured into my education allowed me to do well in life,” he said. “I realized I needed to go back and do that for others – for students in and around Clemson. It’s been a privilege to be associated with the University.”