2021–22 Convocation Remarks by Convocation Speaker Amy Kumpel, Science Department Head
Good morning on this first day of the 100th academic year at Concord Academy!
I love the first day of school. Actually, I always loved school in general. Unsurprisingly, my favorite subjects were math and science. In particular, I was obsessed with outer space. Since outer space wasn’t a standard part of the school curriculum, my family took trips to the planetarium and the Museum of Science, traveled to Florida to watch a shuttle launch, visited Lake Mead where I truly saw the night sky free from light pollution for the first time, and sent me to Space Camp in the seventh grade.
This obsession with space led me to another, much nerdier obsession: science fiction. Being born in 1979, I was obviously a child of Star Wars (the original trilogy), but my first love has always been Star Trek. That’s right, I am a Trekkie. A big one. I have been since I was in middle school, which as you can imagine, made me super popular with the cool kids. Star Trek: The Next Generation pretty much defined my formative years. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I have seen every single episode of all 10 TV series and all 13 movies multiple times. As a teen, I collected the comic books and read dozens of Star Trek universe novels. I’ve even been to a Star Trek convention and sat through an all day movie marathon (although back then there were only eight movies, not 13).
So why am I sharing my nerdy obsession with you? Believe it or not, Star Trek is the inspiration for my talk today. On rainy days this summer—and we had a lot of them—I rewatched episodes of Star Trek. (With 800 episodes, there are plenty of great ones to choose from.) And in one episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard says:
“The past is written. But the future is left for us to write, and we have powerful tools: Openness, optimism and the spirit of curiosity.”
Star Trek has championed openness throughout its time on television. Gene Roddenbury—the creator of Star Trek—originated the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC, which stands for “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” Roddenbury is quoted as saying, “The brotherhood of man is an ideal based on learning to delight in our essential differences, as well as learning to recognize our similarities.” (And if you’re wondering, the necklace I’m wearing today is the Vulcan symbol of IDIC.) Even Captain Kirk says in the episode “Elaan of Troyius,” “The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other,” and in “Plato’s Stepchildren” he says, “Where I come from, size, shape or color makes no difference. And nobody has the power.” As a teenager who was told by her college counselor that “girls don’t become engineers,” and as a queer adult who is in a same-sex marriage, these messages are a big deal.
In fact, Star Trek has always advocated for openness in the form of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice. Watching Star Trek taught me how to have a greater appreciation for teamwork and diplomacy and respect for and the understanding of others. It has also helped me be open to new ideas and new possibilities in my own life and to embrace the idea of “to thine own self be true.” (By the way, Star Trek is also famous for co-opting Shakespeare.)
My high school, college, and graduate school years were all designed around a single goal: to work at NASA. I even debated applying to the Air Force Academy for college, because back then it could fast-track you to the astronaut training program. That was until I found out about the fitness requirements. (Let’s just say, I’m not known for my athletic prowess.) But I did end up majoring in aerospace engineering—take that, college counselor!—and I interned at NASA for two years. And that’s when it happened. My entire life had been building to that point. And I realized that maybe that life wasn’t for me. I had been so narrowly focused on that goal for so long, I never considered doing anything else. I suddenly felt lost and unfocused. So I did what many people would do in that situation. I called my mother. And she—a teacher herself—suggested that I go into teaching.
“The future is left for you to write. My hope for each of you this year is that you will embrace openness, optimism, and the spirit of curiosity.”
— Amy Kumpel
I opened myself up to a completely new idea and the many possibilities that came with that. I honestly wouldn’t have considered teaching otherwise. But suddenly, when I was able to let “the dream” go, I was able to see my path more clearly. And so I became a high school science teacher. As Spock reminds us in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” “Change is the essential process of all existence.”
This isn’t to say that my path was straight from there. I deviated back to engineering after two years of teaching. I allowed myself to be open to the possibility that maybe I should work in industry. And then realized I had made a huge mistake and went back to teaching. But I was open to change. I was open to advice from others. I was open to taking a risk. I was open to trying new things and then trying old things and then trying new things again.
One of the things I love about Concord Academy is that it, too, embraces openness. Openness to others through empathy and diversity by striving for equity. Openness to a love of learning, which inevitably necessitates taking risks. Openness to changing who you are and discovering what you want to become.
The past 18 months at CA have been marked by openness. We were open to changing how we teach and how we learn, to new practices and habits of mind, to new ways of building relationships and engaging with others. And now, as we return to in person learning, we are truly back open.
At its heart, optimism is what Star Trek is all about. Optimism about what the future can be if we work for it together. In fact, the original series was born out of Roddenbury’s extreme optimism for the human race, collectively and as individuals. He envisioned struggles ahead for humanity but also had high expectations of great advancements for the betterment of all humankind. Another reason I love the franchise so much is that it has always paralleled current events, so that episodes serve as allegories of the present day to explore contemporary sociopolitical issues. In “The Drumhead,” conspiracy theories abound, a witch hunt ensues, and democracy is at risk. In “Measure of a Man,” what it means to be alive and to be human is debated in court. Is Data, the android officer, sentient? What rights should he have? In “Force of Nature,” the harmful effects of warp drive and the consequences of climate change and science denial are explored; Commander Geordi LaForge ends that episode by saying, “We still have time to make it better.”
We are inhabiting a tumultuous place and time. Star Trek was born in the 1960s, another decade known for struggle, revolution, change and optimism. Star Trek reminds me that a better future is possible if we collaborate together to achieve it. As Commander Michael Burnham says in Star Trek Discovery, “We get to reach for the stars. We get to reach for the best in ourselves. But, most important, we get to reach for each other. We get to do what we love alongside [others] who become friends … who become family. And who better to stand with, shoulder to shoulder, facing those pivotal moments?”
I cry at every space launch I watch. When I ask myself why I get teary, it’s because of what that launch represents: a deep optimism in what might come to be. And joy and excitement in what might be discovered—a new and better future.
I am so optimistic for this year. It’s my 14th at CA, which is celebrating its 100th year. And after the last 18 months, there’s a special crackle in the air today. It feels electric with excitement, anticipation, optimism for what’s possible when we work together as a school community. Our school’s mission is inherently optimistic, using common trust, purposeful collaboration, integrity and responsibility to build a more just and sustainable future. Each of these tenets of the CA mission is rooted in optimism. Because “that’s how we find our way, by choosing to walk forward, together.” – Commander Michael Burnham
The Spirit of Curiosity
Star Trek may seem like just another science fiction show full of aliens and starships and otherworldly adventures. It is all that, but it also seeks to answer the age-old existential question, “Are we alone in the universe?” Commander Ben Sisko explains humanity to the Bajoran prophets by saying, “It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge.” And that’s what curiosity is all about—questions.
My parents instilled in me a deep curiosity in the world around us, encouraging me to ask questions and seek the answers on my own. My mother likes to tell a story about when I was about 5 or 6. I shook her awake in the middle of the night and asked where electricity came from. She said it came from the wall, hoping that would placate me. It did not. I couldn’t understand how it could come from the wall because we plugged things in and it had to go somewhere from there. We went to the library the next day to find a book about electricity for kids, and my dad took me to the basement to show me the fuse box and how the wires came from the street and into the house.
Aren’t little kids great with their questions? They’re in a state of perpetual curiosity. But we lose our ability to be curious along the way. We teach young kids that it’s not okay to be curious. “Stop asking so many questions.” “Stop bothering me.” And traditional schooling tends to develop focus and appropriate behavior and rewards performance centered around regurgitation. Curiosity gets pushed aside.
My Engineering Design students can tell you that I speak often about curiosity in class. It is vital in science to be curious, to ask questions and seek answers. To be a good engineer and designer, you need to be empathetic towards your users. And the only way to do that is by being curious about them, asking questions, getting to know who they are so that you can identify their problems and brainstorm solutions.
I still ask incessant questions. Ask my wife; it drives her crazy. But I believe the only way to intentionally connect with others is through deep, meaningful conversations that come from being authentically curious about another person. I agree with Captain Philippa Georgiou: “The best way to know yourself is to know others.” I often say to my students, “Tell me more,” when they’re answering a question. I encourage each of you to practice asking good questions and telling each other more. That’s the whole point of CA’s mission: to challenge and expand our understanding of ourselves and the world—something we can only do by being curious.
The future is left for you to write. My hope for each of you this year is that you will embrace openness, optimism, and the spirit of curiosity. To take risks and boldly go where you have not gone before. Because “the most profound discoveries are not necessarily beyond that next star. They’re within us, woven into the threads that bind us, all of us, to each other.” – Captain Jonathan Archer, Star Trek: Enterprise
And so, in the words of Captain Picard, “There’s still much to do, still so much to learn. Engage!”