Allen V. Robnett

Allen V. Robnett's students at Gallatin High, just outside of Nashville, TN, believe he is out of this world. For his innovative courses that build science, math and technology skills through hands-on learning, Robnett has been named the 2010 recipient of the Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award. His Astronomy and Space Exploration class features an in-school planetarium and a rooftop observatory, while the Aviation Theory and Practice class combines actual textbook and simulator pilot training. Robnett developed both courses from scratch and procured grants and in-kind donations to obtain flight simulators, a planetarium and an observatory.

T&L contributing editor Matt Bolch spoke with Allen Robnett about his views on hands-on teaching and learning.

How important is hands-on learning to a vibrant STEM experience?

The most demanding part of any teaching job is getting the student focused and involved. Merely presenting the material in a logical exposition does not accomplish the purpose. The critical science courses are required to be taught as lab courses, but even beyond the labs, hands-on is one of the best ways to promote focused attention.

Whenever I get the chance, I underscore the sad fact that most students and many teachers don't really grasp the difference between memorizing a procedure as opposed to understanding a process. Though I am in favor of enhancing teacher accountability, the current emphasis on testing exacerbates the problem of mere memorization versus understanding.

How does one gain support for the intense infrastructure you need in your astronomy and aviation classes?

I have been fortunate in having superb support from both my present and my previous administrations. I suspect that laying down a good track record helps when it comes to getting support for something new and unusual. A central part of my pitch for the classes was that the main purpose was to use the teen-agers' natural interest in flying and the stars to foster interest in science in general.

What tips do you have for writing a successful grant application?

I do not have a lot of experience at that. I believe that the two national awards that were made were the result of my presenting evidence of success in both the astronomy class and the aviation class. The coverage given to us by local newspapers made it possible for me to compile a 50-page booklet of news clippings and photos of class activities that the judges apparently found compelling. Again, my pitch included the fact that the rationale behind the courses was to foster interest in science in general.