Science Right From the Start

March 1, 2010

In 1986, William L. Austin, then an Air Force noncommissioned officer, was posted to Shaw AFB, S.C. Friends advised him to put his children in private school, but Austin and his wife instead chose the local public school, and they have never regretted the decision.

Austin started volunteering, and rose to head the PTA. One day in the late 1980s, he stopped by his daughter’s middle school to see the principal on PTA business. The principal was in a panic: A substitute for a science class had not arrived, and she needed an adult to sit in the class for an hour, until she could find another teacher. Would Austin oblige? He was tired and had other duties, but agreed to help out.

The decision changed his life.

Those few minutes of exposure to kids in a classroom convinced Austin that he wanted to be a teacher in his post-Air Force career. The excitement of the discovery has not left him. “Once in a while in your life, you find something you’ve been missing,” says Austin. “After that I knew how I wanted to spend my life after the Air Force.”

William Austin discovered what his post-USAF career would be when he was asked to be an emergency substitute teacher.

Decades later, the retired senior master sergeant has been as successful at teaching fifth-graders as he was at leading airmen. He is now a curriculum expert in charge of the science program at Pocalla Springs Elementary School, in Sumter, S.C.

Along the way, Austin has instilled a love of science and math in thousands of students, and trained hundreds of teachers to do the same. He has led the charge to acquire more than 30 acres of land behind the school and obtain corporate funds and state grants to turn the space into an environmental science learning area.

And in 2009, the 21-year Air Force veteran and former munitions system specialist won the Air Force Association’s National Aerospace Teacher of the Year award. “William Austin is making a difference in many young lives, and we’re proud to recognize his dedication,” said Michael M. Dunn, President and Chief Executive Officer of AFA, when the award was announced.

Austin has spent his career trying to point out how important technology is. The first caveman who stuck raw meat into the fire and cooked it kept bacteria from growing. This was using technology, Austin says. Today’s schoolkids need to lead the way toward similar advances.

Calling on USAF

Instead of just getting children to repeat the order of the planets, over and over, teachers should point out that right now mankind is looking for other planets which can host a human population. What are the parameters for a planet like that, in temperature and atmosphere, for instance? Instead of fighting to get kids to leave their iPods and cell phones at home, schools should embrace such technologies for their learning potential, Austin says.

“We should be encouraging them to bring those things into the classroom,” he says.

Besides his work at Pocalla Springs, Austin has also worked as an adjunct professor for The Citadel military college and for the College of Charleston, teaching courses on elementary science for middle school educators. He is working on his next master’s degree, with the goal of some day moving into school administration.

Every now and then, Austin calls upon Shaw Air Force Base resources for help. And he urges those still in the Air Force to take advantage of the training and technology available to them.

“The stuff they get to see, like stealth technologies, they should be thinking about how that can spill over into the civilian world,” he says.

When he was growing up, no one in Austin’s family had a college education. His father went off to fight World War II before he had finished high school. His mother was a high school graduate.

“We weren’t expected to go much further than that,” Austin recalls.

He finished high school in San Jose, Calif., and won a full scholarship to San Jose State University. After he came up with a low draft number, he decided to enlist in the Air Force so he would have some control over where he ended up.

“That was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. The Air Force gave him a college education in life experiences. He met and married his wife of 35 years while in uniform, had children, and moved around the country, eventually landing in South Carolina.

Following his late ’80s epiphany about his desire to teach, Austin enrolled at the University of South Carolina and started taking as many classes as his workload allowed.

Austin praises his military supervisors who allowed him to pursue his education. When he was deployed to the Gulf for the Persian Gulf War, his professors forwarded assignments to the Middle East.

In 1991, Austin earned an associate degree from the Community College of the Air Force.

In 1994, he received a Bachelor of Art’s degree in education from the University of South Carolina and, shortly thereafter, retired from the Air Force. He stepped right into a teaching job at Pocalla Springs, a public school in a nearby South Carolina community, where he remains today.

Pocalla Springs and Sumter are just a few miles from Shaw. A number of Air Force and Army families have children in the school. Today, Pocalla Springs Elementary has 900 students and goes up to fifth grade. In 1994, it was still new, and only went up to third grade.

Austin started out teaching third grade. He taught in the grade a while, then moved up as Pocalla Springs expanded.

Early on, Austin discovered there were few male teachers in elementary school, which gave him the opportunity to act as a male role model. He thrived in the classroom, handling all subjects, as most elementary school teachers do. He learned if you catch kids in the first five years of their education, you can affect their entire life.

But he was particularly drawn to science, an area in which he had always had an interest. He wanted his students to see how elements of science and math are threaded through every subject, from English to art. “Math and science are so important to us, and so important to our national security,” he says.

One way to reach kids is to reach their parents, so Austin started holding “Wild and Wacky Science Night,” a back-to-school evening at which, among other things, he uses a Van de Graaff generator to stand parental hairs on end. Wild and Wacky Science Night now draws 300 to 400 participants annually, and has become a prototype at Pocalla Springs for back-to-school events in the other main subjects.

Austin’s move to help preserve the acreage as an environmental education research area for his school may be an even larger accomplishment. In early 2000, Austin and others discovered that the farmer who owned the property behind the school could not raise crops on it, due to state environmental regulations.

“We convinced him to donate the land to the state,” says Austin. The state comes out to check the property once a year. Outside of this, Austin says, the land is his responsibility.

Austin points out features on a model of the ocean floor to Takoda Spann (center) and Cameron Tomlin. The students were studying landforms.

Statewide Awards

He raises money to maintain it, from both nonprofit grants and corporate donations. Students found a pre-Civil War graveyard on the acreage, which the school is prepping for use in the social studies curriculum. The environmental study center on the land even has night vision cameras, so children can watch tapes of nocturnal wildlife in the area. Since the property is next to the school, getting kids there requires no buses, Austin says. “Very few schools have that kind of resource,” he says.

Over the years, Austin’s students have won 16 statewide science fair awards. Science fairs are interesting, Austin says, because they can be about more than just experiments. Teachers have to prep kids to present their projects to judges, too.

“They have to teach them how to meet and greet, how to keep talking,” he says. “It’s all those great tips we learned in NCO Academy.”

Today, Austin is the science and math curriculum coach for Pocalla Springs. He gets to teach when and where he wants.

“You can have a bigger impact,” he says. “I teach first grade one day, fourth grade the next.”

He has taught each one of his thousands of students his three guiding principles: Education is the key to success; if you’re not here, you can’t learn; and if you love someone, don’t forget to tell them. Austin has had T-shirts printed with these words, in an effort to affix them permanently in students’—and parents’—minds. “As a result, the students in his school not only have significantly improved their science skills and test scores, but have developed enhanced life skills, better preparing them to be productive citizens,” noted Rodgers K. Greenawalt, AFA South Carolina state president, in nominating Austin as AFA National Teacher of the Year.

Austin is passionate about the role of science, technology, and invention in American life. “We’ve been a nation of innovators and inventors all our life, but we’re losing that,” he says.

Austin runs an honor guard at Pocalla Springs as well. It is the only elementary school honor guard in South Carolina, as far as he knows. The members are in charge of raising and lowering the flag, and presenting the colors at PTA meetings. Last Veterans Day, as part of Pocalla Springs’ annual fifth-grade trip to Washington, D.C., honor guard members had the privilege of laying a wreath at the Air Force Memorial.

“In addition to running an award-winning science program, Austin instills a sense of pride and ownership in the school. … He is a great asset to our students,” wrote Pocalla Springs principal Lucille McQuilla in her letter recommending Austin for the AFA National Teacher award.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “STRAT-X,” appeared in the January issue.