By Stan Friedman
MERCER ISLAND, WA (July 22, 2010) – One of the most important lessons Thelma Ritchie wanted to impart to her elementary school science classes was a bold declaration that hung on her classroom wall – “The sky is not the limit.”
Ritchie, who is a member of Mercer Island Covenant Church and the recipient of several national science awards, is not returning to the classroom for the first time in more than 20 years, but she hopes to continue inspiring students through the three science fiction novels she has written about interplanetary space travel.
The trilogy includes, Terra Nova: Settling the Red Planet; Terra Nova: Expanding Red Planet Horizons, and Terra Nova: Taming Red Planet Frontiers. Terra Nova is derived from Latin, meaning New Land or New Earth.
“As a teacher, I wanted to write an adventure story containing real science that I thought would be of high interest to my students,” she says. “I am passionate about science – especially astronomy and space science – and I’d like to see our country embrace interplanetary space travel. I wanted my novel to teach kids about traveling to and living on Mars, presenting real plans for how it could be done.
“I believe there is nothing that compares to space travel that will once again ignite our students with a desire to pursue math and science,” Ritchie says. “The first lunar landing infused young people with dreams for the future and they wanted to be part of the endeavor. Interplanetary space travel will once again provide relevance and excitement for scientific ambitions and goals.”
In addition to receiving several local Teacher of the Year awards, Ritchie has received several prestigious honors for instilling that kind of passion in students. She is a NASA Honors Teacher, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Network of Educators in Science and Technology presented her with its Distinguished Teacher Award, and the Challenger Center for Space Science Education named her Teacher of the Year in 2008.
The Challenger Center, which was started in honor of the crew killed on January 28, 1986, has international education sites, including one in Seattle, where Ritchie also has taught. It annually recognizes teachers who exemplify the spirit of the Challenger 51-L crew’s educational mission.
The Center noted her achievements, saying, “Ms. Ritchie has brought experts, such as NASA educators and Viking research scientists, into her classroom and has collaborated with teachers and scientists to build an educational website about Mars and Earth, and has even written several science fiction books in her quest for new and exciting ways to engage students in learning.”
The medallion she was presented as part of the award contains material that was taken aboard Apollo 8, which made the first orbit of the moon. “It’s one of my most earthly treasures,” Ritchie said with irony.
After Congressional representative Jim McDermott visited her classroom, he spoke about the visit on the floor of the House of Representatives. He ended his speech by saying, “If anyone needs reassurance that America can compete globally in math and science, they should visit Thelma Ritchie’s fifth grade class at the Island Park School.”
Each year, Ritchie’s class built a telescope with a well-known astronomer. She hosted “star parties” during which her students and their parents used a telescope built by fifth graders to examine craters of the moon, the rings of Saturn, Jupiter, the Orion Nebula, and other parts of the heavens.
Ritchie believes that the heavens do tell the glory of God and sees no conflict between science and faith. In the preface to her books, she writes, “It is my belief that science and God are not opposed to each other, but that God is in control of creation, and he has given us all of the science that we understand. God’s creation is incredibly complex.
“Mere human intellect will never completely figure it out, but God encourages our spirit of adventure and continually blesses mankind with discoveries about his creation.”
The books allow her to communicate her faith, which she could not do in the classroom. “My goal in writing Terra Nova was to create a credible story of inspiration for young readers, with convincing main characters to respect and emulate,” Ritchie says. “I attempted to combine the ideas and values of Christianity with a narrative of adventure that is scientifically accurate and timely. I hoped to push the limits of imagination realistically.”
Ritchie still intends to stay connected with the school in some fashion. She may do substitute teaching and help with curriculum. She already has told science teachers that she would help lead several class sessions.
She is unsure about another book project, but fans – including a lot of adults who have read the book – have asked her to do another sequel in the Terra Nova series. She also is considering one about establishing a settlement on the moon because that is most relevant for current science and aspirations. “Before they talked about putting settlements on Mars, but now they’re talking about doing it on the moon,” Ritchie explains.
She is excited about the possibility that people will live on the moon, but another saying Ritchie repeated often to her students still stands – “Aim for way beyond the moon.”