Wade Hampton High School physics teacher Beth Leavitt poses by a life-sized cutout of an astronaut in her classroom.

A robotics coach, a chemist, and a Fulbright Scholar walk into a physics classroom, but it’s not a joke. Beth Leavitt, the 2018 National Aerospace Teacher of the Year, is all three.

Model solar systems hang from her Wade Hampton High School classroom ceiling above a life-size astronaut cutout with a picture of Leavitt on the helmet. Her classroom is filled with scientific escapades, from photos of a trip to Japan as a Fulbright Scholar to newspaper clippings from a workshop where she floated in one of NASA’s zero-gravity chambers.

In her free time, Leavitt looks for these opportunities. Nearly 15 years ago, she was one of 200 teacher finalists reviewed for astronaut selection by NASA during a time when the agency was looking to add teachers to its force. Although she wasn’t selected because of her medical history, the selection process spawned a relationship with the agency that led to even more opportunities — for example, she’s been close enough to a shuttle main engine test to get rained on by the engine’s sulfuric cloud.

Teaching physics is just one aspect of Leavitt’s career as a scientist and educator — one she started after spending 12 years as an environmental chemist.

On Aug. 10, she was named the 2018 National Aerospace Teacher of the Year by the Air Force Association, but the impetus of the award stems from a mysterious 2010 application that Leavitt wouldn’t learn about until 2016, when the National Space Club and Foundation told her to submit another application.

“The National Space Club said, ‘Hey, we were going over old finalists from back in 2010 and we saw your application for Aerospace Teacher of the Year, and we would like you to reapply.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t remember applying for that; somebody else must have put my name in,’” Leavitt said. “And I go, ‘Sure, I’ll reapply.’”

Although Leavitt never found out who nominated her for the award in 2010, she won the 2017 award and attended a gala where she sat by astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

“I’ve never felt so respected and honored as a teacher in my life,” Leavitt said.

About a month after the gala, someone with the Air Force Association contacted Leavitt asking her to apply for the association’s own Aerospace Teacher of the Year award.

Leavitt won the organization’s 2017 statewide award but didn’t win the national award — until now.

A statement released by the Air Force Association said Leavitt was chosen because of her “dedication to her students, [science, technology, engineering, and math] programs, and her creativity.”

Leavitt has never sought out the awards and accolades — she spends much of her time at the high school working with her competitive, after-school robotics club, which she started 12 years ago when her son was looking for a club to join.

FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an organization with thousands of member clubs internationally. Last year, Wade Hampton High’s team advanced to the world championship in Houston, Texas.

Leavitt is constantly looking for sponsors to help fund equipment and trips for the students.

“New sponsors can help us go a long way, most importantly for those low-income students,” Leavitt said. “There’s no funding to give a low-income student from a club for opportunities like that.”

In a week, Leavitt will attend a conference in Washington, D.C., where she’ll talk about receiving the National Aerospace Teacher of the Year award.

For Leavitt, transitioning from a chemist to a teacher 20 years ago was the best decision she’s made. She said the most rewarding aspect of teaching is seeing students get excited about learning.

Often, Leavitt said, she will present students with a difficult problem in the first week of class, before they’ve learned anything about physics.

“There are ways to solve problems that you have zero experience with,” she said.

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