Science gave me purpose

 In Writing
Steve Carlson ’67 didn’t even like the subject. A Clark counselor changed everything.

By Rhonda Morin

Steve Carlson ’67 taught science for more than three decades and—13 years after retirement—still holds three teaching and administrative certificates. He’s a master teacher. He’s overseen operations, curricula and scheduling as a public school assistant principal, headed science departments, coordinated district-wide science programs and taught geology and other sciences at the college level.

Steve Carlson ’67 in front of the Mount St. Helens dome in June 1980, less than a month after the volcano erupted sending plumes of ash in the air. Photo by Steve Carlson.

Steve Carlson ’67 in front of the Mount St. Helens dome in June 1980, less than a month after the volcano erupted sending plumes of ash in the air. Photo by Steve Carlson.

He wasn’t always this way. In fact, he didn’t even like science as a boy.

He went through the motions in high school and eventually entered Clark College, but he lacked the enthusiasm to learn. A meeting with a guidance counselor in 1963 forever changed the trajectory of Carlson’s life. The advice he received was this: drop out of college and return when you are ready.

“I changed from going to school to get a grade, to going to school to learn,” said Carlson, who today is a donor to Clark College Foundation because he knows from experience how education transforms lives.

Carlson grew up in rural Hockinson, Wash., northeast of Brush Prairie, in a farming family with few resources and little education. There were no books in the house or aspirations for college. His memories of high school science are of drawing boring pictures and seething as he watched “bright kids get to do things.”

He rebelled against his family’s traditions and enrolled at Clark in 1963. “Going to Clark was based on girls, cars and avoiding the draft. But it didn’t work. Halfway through my second term I went to the counseling center because I was failing,” said Carlson.

Counselor Ray Gantz had sage advice: “‘you’re not a failure, but a late bloomer. Drop out and come back when you’re ready to learn,’” Carlson recalls.

“When I returned in 1965, I was ready. Ray helped to connect me with basic skills classes and people who could help me.” Carlson also received an Isabelle Campbell scholarship.

Earth science rocks

A science course with Doug Nosler provided the vehicle Carlson was looking for—the chance to actively study science at the college level. He explored caves during field trips, took soil samples and looked at wiggling organisms under a microscope. His curiosity was ignited. Earth science became his passion.

“Taking this class proved to me I could handle a difficult, high-end, college science course,” said Carlson.

During his Clark days, Carlson’s experience as a public school intern—made possible through a federal scholarship—revealed a crack in the system that gave him new purpose.

“I saw students just like me who were strugglers; they had low motivation or lacked resources. It was then that I decided to be an educator and make a difference in the lives of these kids,” he said.

The career that followed brimmed with satisfying moments. He’s most proud of creating what he calls a “community of learners,” in which he creates a variety of opportunities for students to absorb the subject matter. There are study sessions the night before tests and drawing concept questions from a hat at the start of class to get students’ creative juices flowing.

“These would immediately engage them in learning,” said Carlson.

Though he’s slowed down during retirement, Carlson still teaches the occasional continuing education or adult education course. He taught about rocks, minerals, tectonics, volcanoes and earthquakes for Clark College’s Mature Learning program for about six years. His favorite course was on the geology of the national parks in the west. He’s also a regular donor to the program.

Supporting Clark College students through financial gifts is another way Carlson makes a difference. Lack of money should never hinder a person’s desire to get an education, Carlson believes. He recently established the Carlson Geoscience Student Opportunity Fund, to support students in the earth sciences through scholarships and equipment.

Carlson’s gifts, like those from all of Clark College Foundation’s generous donors, give the college access to enthusiastic educators and staff and the tools they need to lift up students to the greatest learning heights.

Alumnus brings together Stephen Hawking and disabled students

Steve Carlson ’67 delights in sharing his love of science. So when he hears about opportunities to get students excited about science, Carlson’s brain goes into logistical overdrive. Such was the case in the early 1990s, when Carlson learned that physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking was coming to Portland, Ore. Carlson contacted the local organizer, Terry Bristol, and eventually they were able to convince Hawking to meet with a group of physically challenged students ranging in ages from 6 to 18.  The first-of-its-kind meeting took place at a Portland hotel. Students, many constrained to wheelchairs like Hawking, who has the motor neuron disease ALS, were joined by their parents and teachers to meet Hawking.

The physicist was not in the habit of meeting with disabled students during his lecture tours, according to Carlson. But the Portland experience changed the arrangements Hawking made for future presentations. Carlson said Hawking continues to regularly meet with academically advanced students who have physical restrictions when he lectures.

Having students—and their parents—see a scientist like Hawking who uses a wheelchair for mobility and talks through a special computer, is inspiring, according to Carlson. Following that special meeting, a parent told Carlson that his son’s life was changed forever.

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