Wanda Harding’s 20-year career as a senior mission manager at NASA and technical director with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was just a detour from what she really wants to do—teach.
“I thought I would work as an engineer for about five years and then go into the classroom,” Harding said. “Teaching is something I’ve wanted to do since I was an undergraduate. The best professors I had were able to bring real-world experiences to the class, and that is the kind of teacher I wanted to be.”
Thanks to the Woodrow Wilson Georgia Teaching Fellowship Program at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, Harding is now getting her chance to teach. And she not only brings real-world experience to the job, she brings out-of-this-world experience as well.
Harding said she originally planned on being a concert pianist. That changed when she enrolled at Atlanta’s Benjamin E. Mays High School, which has a special Science & Mathematics Academy. Asked which teacher at Mays inspired her to pursue a career in engineering, Harding said, “That would be a long list! At Mays, we were strongly encouraged—almost required—to participate in annual math and science fairs; and we had teachers who wouldn’t let us give up. They set the bar of expectations high for us.”
Harding earned a bachelor of science degree at Hampton University and a master’s degree at Georgia Tech, both in electrical engineering. In October 1994, she was hired by NASA at the Kennedy Space Center and began working on projects for the International Space Station. She then joined NASA’s Launch Services Program, which works with private rocket manufacturers to launch spacecraft for government customers.
Overseeing the work of large engineering and science teams for each launch, Harding was involved with missions including the Spitzer Space Telescope; the Dawn space probe; the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter; and the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), better known as the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012 and is still exploring the planet. (Google “MSL Launch Poll” to see Harding give the Mission Manager “GO!” call prior to the MSL launch.)
Still, Harding never gave up on her dream to teach. So, when she heard about the Woodrow Wilson Fellows program, she jumped at the chance.
Piedmont College is one of five Georgia institutions selected by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, to offer graduate programs for students with backgrounds in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Fellows earn a master’s degree to become middle and high school science and math teachers in high-need schools. The Georgia program is coordinated by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, with support from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.
Now Harding is enrolled as a graduate student at Piedmont and spends most of her days as a student-teacher at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Georgia, introducing ninth-graders to the world of coordinate algebra and analytic geometry. “The experience has been great,” she says. “I’ve been out of high school for 30 years, and it’s certainly a lot different from what I remember. But I hope I can be an inspiration to students interested in pursuing a field like space or any technical field.”
Harding said her students were initially curious about her NASA background, but mostly they wanted to know why she left. “I tell them I was ready to come work with the next generation,” she said. “They are going to be the ones running the world when I retire.”