Blogs  |  12.10.2020

Alumni Profile: Adam Wuerl


Name: Adam Wuerl

Profession: Director of Advanced Concepts & Strategy, Blue Origin

Education: B.S. Aeronautics and Astronautics, University of Washington; M.S. Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University.

Which of our Challenger Learning Centers did you visit? Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA.

When did you visit a Challenger Learning Center? 7th grade.

What do you remember most from your experience?

The whole day for me stands out as a memorable experience that I think of every time I revisit the Museum of Flight and walk past the area under the main staircase where it took place. I lived in Bellingham at the time, so it was a big deal for a small group of us, which included most of my best friends, to take a field trip down to the city to visit the museum and “do a space thing.” I remember lots of silly details, like accidently dropping the can of pop I’d packed in my lunch and watching it leak out of a microscopic hole, then eating my soda-less lunch later in the day on the benches and tables that are still outside of the main entrance. For the actual event, I can’t recall what all the teams were, or even which team I was on, but I remember the alarms and warnings and things going wrong — and that we weren’t entirely successful. On the ride back home, the overwhelming feeling was wanting to take another shot at it, and in some sense, I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing for the nearly 30 subsequent years!

Have you always been interested in STEM?

I’ve been interested in space as long as I can remember (and yes, I know that’s not what the “S” in STEM stands for). Some of my earliest memories are of Return of the Jedi themed toys, and let’s be honest: that first love of space has never waned. Math was a little different. In early grade school, when it was mostly arithmetic and memorization, I didn’t enjoy it very much. It felt like a chore and memorization, which I’ve always found tedious. It wasn’t until the end of middle school when I really grew to enjoy it. The difference was that it started to seem useful because algebra, geometry and calculus were useful for solving real problems. Middle school also had science classes with labs, where we could see cells under a microscope, or take measurements and test our hypotheses. Then in high school chemistry we made batteries and explosives, and in physics we built AM radios and observed the phases of the Moon. I think what spoke to me was how science was a framework for understanding the world, math as the lingua franca that made science objective and repeatable, and technology and engineering the application of these principles in service of making the world a better place.

Did the visit to the Challenger Learning Center affect your decision to pursue a STEM degree or career? If yes, how?

The visit was one of my first exposures of how space was a thing that real people worked on. It wasn’t just for movies and sci-fi novels, or the occasional news coverage of a Space Shuttle mission. And although I was disappointed we didn’t ace the simulation that also made it seem a lot more real and drove home that in real space missions there’s no guarantee of success.

Why is STEM education so critical at a young age?

The main reason is that it’s just easier to learn foundational things when you’re young. It’s true of language, and science and math are their own kind of language. In a world where we are increasingly fed information that confirms our biases, it’s more important than ever to teach kids how to seek out their own information and let their beliefs follow from truth and not the other way around. And as each year passes, humanity learns more, so every new generation has more to learn before they reach the cutting edge. Starting early can’t hurt!

But perhaps most critically is ensuring that kids earn early STEM wins. It’s tragic to think there are kids who could have been really good in a STEM field who never give it a chance because they weren’t exposed until after they’d formed a self-image of not being good at math, or that science and technology were too nerdy for them, or because their family or school district didn’t have the resources to expose them to or encourage them in the fields until late in their educations. Not everyone should go into a STEM field, but every child should have an honest opportunity to make that decision for themselves.

What advice would you give to students who want to pursue STEM degrees or careers?

Stay curious. Read everything that you find interesting. Find at least one hobby in the area that lets you tinker. Perhaps it’s an RC car, or some simple coding project, or if you don’t have the means, even just spending time outdoors observing nature.

In one sentence, how would you describe your Challenger Learning Center experience?

My Challenger Learning Center experience is my earliest memory of a hands-on space activity that bridged the gap between a subject I’d always been interested in and realizing it was a thing I could do for a living.

Why should people support Challenger Learning Center’s STEM programs?

Our schools obviously play a critical role in promoting STEM for kids, but there are some things that just aren’t feasible in a school and classroom environment. The Challenger Center experience is the perfect example of something that’s only possible if it’s located somewhere it can serve a large population of students from dozens of schools over the span of decades, and that type of commitment and charter requires dedicated support. It’s the type of hands-on, experiential learning that leaves a lasting impression and can speak to kids through a different mode of learning. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are the foundation of our modern technologic society, but it’s a foundation that will crumble in a single generation if we don’t continuously maintain, support, and build upon it.