Robert Strong has had a knack for science since he was a kid. After teaching math and science for ten years in West Africa and American Samoa while in the Peace Corps, he realized he wanted to do more with his love for the subject back at home.
“Other classrooms need the enthusiasm that you have and I thought well what if we did a science center, what if we got out and helped teachers get excited because if I can get a single teacher excited without ever stepping into their class and hey teach a new class every semester or every year, then how fun that would be,” said Strong.
In 1995, Strong started the SMART Center in Wheeling. SMART stands for science, math, art, research and technology.
The interactive center let’s kids and adults perform hands on science activities and provides educational support for teachers.
“This is a gravity well. You can listen to them as they go around. It just turns into a blur and so you can show this as a model of the solar system. You can put a coin in let it go around a couple of times and say this is the planet Mercury. Put another coin in and say this is Earth and then say so is gravity a curve in space or is it a force?” said Strong.
Strong and his wife Libby are avid astronomers. They even have a science store called Smart Center Market in Wheeling.
The store is filled with science treasures, toys and collectibles, and pieces from West Virginia artisans.
“This is called a musical marble tree and all of the woods are made in West Virginia woods and when you drop a marble down what it does is it starts from the top and gravity feeds it all the way down,” he said.
Each week, Strong and his wife perform hands-on science activities for the community, like StarWatch, where people get a chance to look through the center’s telescopes and receive a nighttime lesson in astronomy.
He said the programs help bring excitement to people of all ages.
“Sometimes we’ll if we just got something in what’s fun is to play with it fresh in front of a group of people and experiment with them and actually do the science and on really clear days we will take out a prism and look at the rainbow that’s mixed with sunlight. With the snow lately that we have had we have done some snow flake science, so we try to take advantage of what is going on.”
Staying on top of what is going on in the science field is a top priority for Strong. He became an ambassador for one of NASA’s outreach science programs in 1997.
Today, he is a Solar System Ambassador. The program is sponsored by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to help inspire the public to explore space in their backyard.
There are almost 500 Ambassadors in 50 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico.
Strong volunteers his time and in return he receives Internet training and materials from NASA.
“The things that I have earned and learned as a solar system ambassador allow me when someone comes in and asks about a telescope to talk about telescopes in a much more vigorous way. Every time that we do a star watch my background with the Solar System Ambassadors lets me feel so comfortable when someone asks a question about Jupiter. I have no fear when someone asks me a question,” said Strong.
Strong said he hopes other science enthusiasts in the state will consider joining the Solar Ambassadors program.
To learn more about the Solar Ambassadors program click here.