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Curious Ed Goes From "Gearhead" to Scientist
Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers? The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer working on robotic machines bound for space. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the student wondering if there is life beyond Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers. They are all linked by their quest to explore our solar system and universe. This monthly series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Albert Einstein once said, "I have no special gift -- I am only passionately curious." Another famous scientist, Isaac Newton, also was the curious type. An apple falling from a tree sparked Newton's curiosity and led to his theory of gravity.

A photo of Ed Prather and a picture of a motocross rider

Curiosity led Ed Prather from cars and motorcycles to physics and teaching. Image Credit: NASA

Similarly, Ed Prather has always had a strong sense of curiosity. In fact, being curious is what led Prather from an interest in car and motorcycle racing to science and teaching.

Prather has a graduate degree (a degree beyond a college bachelor's degree) in physics and is head of NASA's Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona. He teaches an introductory astronomy class and develops teaching methods that help students grasp difficult concepts.

As a young student, Prather had a different passion. His dream was to race cars and motorcycles. Prather grew up a "gearhead." In high school, he focused on auto mechanics and did not take science and math classes.

"I was always curious about machinery," he said. "Hydraulics and electronics really fascinated me." Hydraulic systems are the secret behind car brakes, elevators and large machines such as bulldozers and cranes. These systems use a liquid to transfer force from one point to the other.

After high school, Prather made sure he was always surrounded by machines. First, he worked as an auto mechanic. Next, he was employed at a crane manufacturing plant. Later, he took a new job writing the crane's repair manual. This required explaining complex ideas in a simple, clear way.

Repairing machines sparked Prather's curiosity even further. He wanted to learn more about how cranes work. At the age of 20, and with not much science background, he started taking evening classes in hydraulics and electronics at a local college.

Prather soon became an expert on machine repair at the plant. He got his first taste of teaching when he started training other mechanics to use the equipment. "The idea of helping someone understand was fascinating and fun," he said.

Physics was also becoming fun for Prather. Physics helped explain a lot about how machines operate. Physics was no longer the mystery it used to be. He said he used to think physics "was like a magic potion you rubbed onto something to make it work."

Prather decided to get a bachelor's degree and doctorate degree in physics. A bachelor's degree requires about four years of education beyond high school. The advanced degree -- called a doctorate of philosophy or a Ph.D. -- usually involves several more years of study. In his doctoral work and ever since, Prather's research has combined both of his passions -- physics and teaching.

From his own experience, Prather knows that learning new and complex science concepts can be a challenge for students. He uses that knowledge to come up with ways to help students learn complex science topics more easily.

Working with students is the most rewarding part of his job, Prather said. He’s glad he never gave up being curious about the world around him and encourages young students to do the same.

And he still finds time for his first love: racing cars and motorcycles.

Related Resources
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Center for Astronomy Education   →
StarChild   →

Prachi Patel, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Adapted for grades 5-8 audience by Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies