Jim Stepp of Westfield was a lackluster student growing up on the north side of Pittsburgh until his sixth-grade teacher assigned a two-week science lesson on astronomy.

“I just went crazy,” he said recently from his office at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where he is dean of students. “I read all the books on astronomy in the school library before the end of the year.”

Then he started in on the astronomy collection of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

“They must have wondered about this 11-year-old in the astronomy section of the library,” he said. “I learned a lot about cosmology, relativity and the universe as a whole.”

The astronomy lesson transformed Stepp’s attitude toward learning, and he became a straight-A student. His sixth-grade teacher also kindled a lifelong hobby that motivates Stepp to share his love of astronomy with his community in northern Maine.

He is currently partnering with the National Space Society to revive the Aroostook County Astronomy Club, originally founded in 2005. The first program, scheduled for Dec. 12, will feature pictures from the New Horizons space probe that traveled 4 billion miles between 2006 and 2015 to photograph and collect scientific data on Pluto. The program will begin at 6:30 p.m. in 105 Pullen Hall at UMPI.

“The New Horizons mission was designed to help us understand the worlds that orbit the sun at the edge of our solar system,” Stepp wrote in an article for UMPI’s University Times. “On July 14, 2015, New Horizons flew by Pluto at nearly 31,000 miles an hour and took hundreds of pictures as close as 7,750 miles from Pluto’s surface.”

I first met Stepp as he recruited members for the astronomy club on July 15 at the conclusion of the “From Pluto at the Speed of Light” road race between Houlton and Presque Isle.

Organized by UMPI geology professor Kevin McCartney, groups of runners relayed over the 40-mile course from planet to planet in the Maine Solar System Model along U.S. Route 1. (One runner ran the entire distance.) They maintained an a mile pace of 8 minutes 20 seconds, or the speed of light, corresponding to the scale of the nine planet models erected along the roadway.

When runners finished at Percy’s Auto Sales in Presque Isle, the location of Earth in the solar system model, Stepp had a screen set up in the showroom projecting the first photos from the New Horizons space probe.

“The pictures are as good as any celestial observations,” he told the group on hand to greet the runners, describing the images that had started to appear online early that morning. He invited those interested in learning more to sign up to join the astronomy club.

His email list now contains about 50 people ranging in age from teenagers to retirees. Monthly meetings will start an hour before sundown with an educational activity and conclude with an observation of the sky, weather permitting.

Stepp’s emails to members provide detailed explanations of celestial events, such as the unusual lunar eclipse Sept. 27-28, which occurred when the moon was closest to the earth, thus picking up reddish light from the earth’s atmosphere making it a “blood moon.” Stepp’s message included a schedule of the stages in the eclipse, scientific data and a list of related websites.

The September newsletter gave dates and times for viewing different planets and the International Space Station, directing recipients to calsky.com for a complete calendar of events and to skymaps.com for a free sky map.

“It’s just a hobby, but I love it,” he said of his commitment to the astronomy club, describing the time constraints imposed by his job, his role as advisor for student groups on campus and volunteer activities in the community.

Stepp came to Presque Isle in 1995 to accept the position of director of residential life for what he thought would be three to five years.

“Opportunities kept opening up,” and he advanced from residential life director to assistant dean of students and interim dean before becoming dean in 2013. He completed his comprehensive exam for a doctorate in higher education leadership in 2009 and is attempting to complete his dissertation.

“I love this place,” he said, expressing pleasure that his three children call northern Maine home. “I’m glad they grew up here.”

Living in a place with a clear view of the night sky also contributes to his love of northern Maine.

“The average person in northern Maine can see 30,000 stars a night, ” he said. “In Pittsburgh, I could see 50 to 100 stars.”

Not long ago, Stepp saw the name of his sixth-grade teacher online and emailed to see whether she were the same person who inspired him in Pennsylvania. When she confirmed her identity, he sent her a message explaining how she had changed his life.

“Everyone has someone who inspired them,” he said. “In my life I am lucky to have had four: my parents; my sixth grade teacher, Beth Young; and a college professor named Maurice Owen. I hope the things I do with astronomy or my job may inspire someone to expand their horizons.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.