Blogs  |  8.18.2016

Toni York Alumni Profile

Challenger Center

Toni York traveled to a Challenger Learning Center with her science class in 6th grade. She recalls the excitement of the experience – the buildup and pre-mission prep with her classmates, her brother being extremely jealous that his class wasn’t going, and her computer scientist father serving as one of the chaperones. She remembers that it was this particular experience, her visit to a Challenger Learning Center, that brought space travel to life. Having been raised on Star Trek, space was what Toni called a normal part of her household. She remembers that her time at the Center was when space became more than a TV show, more than an idea. It became real, and it was something Toni could imagine herself being part of in the future. Today, Toni is an engineer at the AFRL Information Directorate in Rome, NY, and she continues to share her passion for STEM at a summer engineering camp she developed for middle school students.

NameToni York
Toni York

BA triple major in Math, Physics, and Music (2007, Drew University), MS in Math (2009, Montclair State University), ME in Systems Engineering (2011, Stevens Institute of Technology under a SMART Scholarship), and currently working on a BS in Comp Sci (should finish in 2017, Oregon State University)

Current Profession
General Engineer, Air Force Research Laboratory Information Directorate (AFRL/RI)

Previous STEM Experience
I was a STEM tutor and TA at various times while at both Drew University and Montclair State University. I mostly taught math, at every level from basic arithmetic up to trigonometry and calculus. At Montclair State University I also worked as an assistant in an office dedicated to the professional development of STEM teachers in New Jersey.

I first started as a civilian engineer with the USAF in 2011 at the Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC, Arnold AFB, TN) as a systems engineer and project manager. I worked with the group that handles the maintenance and upgrade of flight ground test systems such as AEDC’s 4-ft and 16-ft wind tunnels. AEDC is also where I first got involved with AF STEM outreach by volunteering at various events and programs. As part of one of those programs I was able to attend an educators’ training workshop at the Challenger Center in Chattanooga, TN. It was just as much fun as an adult as it was when I was a kid!

I’m now an engineer at AFRL/RI (AFRL Rome Lab in Rome, NY), where I work with the Resilient Synchronized Systems branch. I’m also heavily involved in the STEM outreach program here. I’m the curriculum designer and head instructor for the AFRL/RI Engineering Camp, which is co-sponsored by the Air Force and the Griffiss Institute. The camp’s goal is to teach middle schoolers about the joy of engineering through hands-on activities. A group of 20 campers spends a week working through guided lab experiments to explore scientific concepts and then applying what they’ve learned to complete real-world design challenges. Using recycled materials, inexpensive craft supplies, and simple electrical components, the campers design, build, and test projects such as towers, boats, and working flashlights.

When did you visit a Challenger Learning Center?
In 6th grade with my specialized science class. My dad was one of the chaperones and my older brother was very jealous!

What do you remember most from your experience?
I remember the huge build up to our visit. There was an entire unit about preparing to visit the Challenger Learning Center. I remember the excitement of it, and understanding that this trip was going to be something really cool and special.

How did your experience at the Center play a part in your decision to take additional STEM related classes, pursue a STEM-related degree and/or follow a STEM career path?
I grew up in a family of computer scientists and unashamed nerds, and the Challenger Center trip certainly didn’t hurt the strong interest I already had for everything STEM-related. This was probably the start of being interested in space and space travel. Having been raised on Star Trek, the idea of space travel was a normal part of my life, something I actually didn’t think about much. But Challenger Center made it real, and it became something that I could imagine myself doing.

In your opinion, why is STEM education so critical at a young age ?
I think middle school is the perfect age, when the students are both old enough that they can really understand the scientific concepts and yet also young enough that it’s still cool to get excited and make messes and try new things. STEM education doesn’t just teach students about science, technology, engineering, and math, though those subjects are of course important themselves. It also teaches students how to investigate the world around them, question their assumptions, think about complex ideas, solve difficult problems creatively, work on large tasks collaboratively, and communicate with others effectively. I believe that being exposed to these experiences at a younger age can increase a student’s confidence and ability to tackle the challenges they will encounter later, in both their education and in the rest of their life.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in STEM subjects and want to pursue STEM-focused degrees and careers?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and never think that having trouble with something means that it’s just too hard for you. I nearly quit STEM subjects after high school, because I’d found calculus to be frustrating and incomprehensible. Now I consider myself a mathematician, work as an engineer, and study computer science. Sometimes you need to give things a second try, or find a different perspective. Don’t let one bad experience turn you away from something that interests you. Be persistent, and have confidence in yourself!

In one sentence, how would you describe your experience at the Challenger Learning Center?
It was both challenging and incredibly fun and exciting, something that stands out strongly and positively in my memories of middle school.

Meet more Challenger Learning Center alumni.