Launch Point: A rocket teacher’s impact on the future

Rocket teacher Chris McLeod works with a student in the rocketry lab at Brazoswood High School

By Tessa Benavides-Cooper

Photography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs

Underneath renderings of actual rockets and the word INNOVATE, Chris McLeod shapes the future of Texas from inside the rocketry lab of the Brazosport ISD Career & Technical Education Center. 

Cliche? Yes.

Truth? Absolutely. And McLeod’s interpretation of that impact demonstrates his deep understanding of the role of a teacher in a student’s life.

“I come to work every day with a sense of purpose, a true sense of purpose,” McLeod said. “I can point to the students who have gone to university, I can point to the students who have gone straight to trade, I can point to students who have gone to prison, and I can say that in every one of their lives I had, I hope, some meaningful impact. Going to work every day knowing that my temperament, the way I treat a student, the way I respond to criticism, or to someone on their phone, knowing that that can shape who they are, knowing that that can shape our community eventually – that’s a big weight to bear.”

Produced by Tessa Benavides; edited by Anne Bannister; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs

A few moments of observing McLeod interacting with his students, and it is easy to spot how deliberate he is in how he establishes unique relationships with each student. He asks insightful questions, gives critiques and observations on a student’s work as easily as he delivers impromptu jokes. The same dynamic occurs between his students resulting in a space that feels more like a co-working space than a traditional classroom.

Ensuring that his classroom is a space where, yes, highly-skilled engineering and rocketry concepts are taught and mastered, and also – possibly more importantly to McLeod – a space where students learn how to be good humans. McLeod points back to his time as a teacher working in an alternative school and the restorative justice practices he learned as a framework for how he models healthy human interactions in the rocketry lab.

“If we can build strong workplace skills, if we can set a strong foundation for a young adult, and let them explore how to be a good community member, how to be a good team worker, how to communicate effectively, and most of all, how to be a good human, then I think I’ve done my job,” McLeod said.

Featured left to right: John, Avery, Jaycee, Leonardo, and Rowan

The work happening inside the rocketry lab builds good humans, and also, world record setting rockets. The SystemsGo project-based engineering program builds year on year resulting in a team of seniors who travel to White Sands Missile Range and attempt to build and fly the high school hybrid world record rocket.

“Last year, 2022, we did that,” McLeod said. “The 2022 team building on five years of this senior-level experience successfully flew to almost 50,000 feet above sea level, which is incredible.” 

In 2023 McLeod was selected as the Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year. Just as he is in his classroom, McLeod is deliberate about how he approaches serving in this role. He focuses on two things when he is asked about the teaching profession: positivity and hope. 

“If you’re doing this profession without hope, then you probably shouldn’t be in the profession, he said. “We have to believe in tomorrow in order to work really hard today.”

Shaping lives

Rowan, a recent graduate of the Brazosport ISD Rocketry program, is studying mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University. She said it has always been her dream to be an aerospace engineer. “When I was seven, that’s what it comes back to, me and my parents went to the NASA Johnson Space Center to watch the live landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and ever since then, I just knew it was my dream to be involved in a project at that scale in the engineering sector.”

Thanks to her experience at Brazoswood High School she is pursuing that dream. Rowan says her favorite thing about McLeod’s class was the opportunity to work with her hands and apply theory to practice. 

John, who is now studying mechanical engineering at the University of Houston shared during his senior year, “It’s always a challenge. Mr. McLeod challenges us to push ourselves. He teaches us in a very unique way in which we have to do 90% of the work finding everything, trial and error. He teaches at a very collegiate level and it shows. He got Teacher of the Year for high school level in the State of Texas … He really pushes you to learn. I’ve learned more in this year about mechanical engineering and researching than I have in four years of taking basic engineering courses.”

Leonardo, another 2023 graduate, just started an aerospace engineering program at the University of Texas at Arlington. He shares, “If it wasn’t for rocketry at this school, I don’t know what I would be doing after high school … I loved the experience and the adventure, having to find the answers for ourselves and pushing us further every week or so.” 

One might say that all these students share a similar sentiment about Mr. McLeod’s rocketry program: it was the launchpad to their future.