Giving Students Space

Caitlin Unterman '12, '14 M.A.T. is a state and nationally recognized science teacher at Forest Middle School.

Caitlin Unterman ’12, ’14 M.A.T. is a state and nationally recognized science teacher at Forest Middle School.

Alumna earns national accolades for teaching skills

It was a typical Thursday in the classroom of Caitlin Unterman ’12, ’14 M.A.T. as the Forest Middle School students in her Science Exploration class worked together to plan missions to Mars. The following week, they would share their ideas with NASA scientists via a live video chat. Later in the semester, they would put their plans to the test with a Mars landing simulation using drones on the school’s front lawn.

Caitlin Unterman '12, '14 M.A.T. is a state and nationally recognized science teacher at Forest Middle School.

Caitlin Unterman ’12, ’14 M.A.T. is a state and nationally recognized science teacher at Forest Middle School.

It’s safe to say that Unterman, who calls herself more of a “guide” than a teacher, has seen her class skyrocket in popularity the past year. Her teaching skills have also been recognized on the national and state level.

“I love this class,” said Jackson Scott. “It’s given me a new perspective about space. Ms. Unterman is really calm and patient with us, and she explains things well. She tells us we’re the teachers and lets us ‘fly solo’ on our projects.”

In just the fifth year of her teaching career, Unterman has already received recognition from her students and from science teaching organizations across the country for her innovative class and teaching style. In 2015, she received U.S. Cellular’s “Calling All Teachers” award and was voted the top teacher in the greater Lynchburg area by the readers of Lynchburg Living magazine.

Most recently, she earned a 2016 Recognition in Science Education award in Earth Science from the Virginia Association of Science Teachers.

Unterman started the class in 2015 with the help of her friend Shaunna Morrison, a Lynchburg native and a contracted scientist for NASA. Unterman jokes that the class has “really taken off,” going from 50 students in its first year to 76 in the 2015-16 school year. One reason for its popularity is because students feel they are making meaningful contributions to space exploration.

“No matter how bad or good their day is, my students are almost always in a good mood when they come in here because they know what they have to do and they know they’re doing something that’s relevant,” Unterman said. “These kids could be future NASA scientists. When they’re talking to business professionals, they’re talking to possible future employers.”

The class has also received growing support from the school’s administration.

“Ms. Unterman certainly deserves great credit for taking an idea and developing it into a very unique and very special learning experience,” said Scott Simmons, principal of Forest Middle School. “She brings great ideas and a high level of enthusiasm and energy, which is certainly needed when you go about building a class or curriculum from the ground up. In addition, she is very involved in multiple programs in our school and plays an important role in each of them.”

“This class has been better than we could’ve expected. It’s really an out of this world course—pun intended,” Unterman laughed. “But it’s awesome and I’m pretty proud of it, and I think the principal and the county are too. I never thought it was going to get this much attention, but I’m glad it did because it’s so important for these kids.”