For 34 years, Becky Holden has placed a high importance on mathematics in her first-grade classrooms. A few years ago, through the NASA Explorer Schools project, she started using the mathematics she was so passionate about to also engage students in more science.
Holden's passions for science and mathematics in the primary grades led to her being selected as a 2008 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. "Receiving the Presidential Award gives my work and beliefs about mathematics perspective in the national arena," Holden said. "I am honored to measure up to the award's extremely high standards. I am passionate about the importance of primary mathematics. As I continue to support best practices in mathematics, the respect associated with the award will provide opportunities for a wider audience."
Holden represented the primary grades and mathematics on the planning team at Battle Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn., which joined the NASA Explorer Schools project in 2004. Holden and other team members were responsible for working with NASA on figuring out the best way to bring NASA content into the classrooms. Holden’s task was to bring that content to even the youngest of the academy's future explorers.
As part of the planning team, Holden sought ways to integrate NASA content into the content she was already teaching. For example, during a unit on careers she talked about the variety of jobs at NASA, from astronauts and pilots to scientists and engineers. As a demonstration of classroom themes on teamwork and perseverance, Holden talked to students about international cooperation and all of the different countries involved in the International Space Station. When teaching students about perspective, she played a game with students using images of a ground view, an aerial view, and a satellite view of Earth to show how the same things look different from various distances.
These activities connect students to NASA on their own level, Holden said. "It connects them to the program in a first-grade kind of way," Holden said. "It's more of a big-picture thing, but it's cool because they like space. It's an attention-getter."
Holden visited NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, for a variety of training courses, workshops and tours. She also participated in a reduced-gravity flight at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. She then shared those experiences with students, showing pictures of the places she toured and experiences she had.
For two years, the academy's fifth-graders designed experiments for a NASA reduced-gravity flight; the second year Holden experienced microgravity for herself as one of the teachers who flew with the experiment.
To involve younger grades in that project, students designed experiments that were dropped from the top of the fire department's ladder truck, similar to how microgravity experiments are done at NASA's Zero Gravity Research Facility, which Holden toured at Glenn. The facility is a drop tower used for conducting ground-based microgravity research. Experiments are dropped inside the chamber. They experience 5.18 seconds of freefall and land in about 15 feet of expanded polystyrene beads. As part of her tour, Holden was given clear bags of the small, white polystyrene beads used at the facility to take back and share with her students.
"You just want to get them interested from a young age," Holden said. "It's just so hard to have time to experience science, so you have to incorporate it with mathematics or you can't get it in. Any time you can reference science and give context for the mathematics, that's a bonus."
Holden added that the opportunity to be on her school's NASA team helped her make connections between mathematics and science and gave her greater contexts to teach them. "There's this great big science world out there. When you're just in the classroom, you're just not necessarily aware of it," Holden said. "We got to see so many things, and those things we got to see, we can talk about and share with our classes. It makes it so real. It’s not like you see in a book. You have more enthusiasm because you've actually been there and experienced it.
"I'm so grateful I got to do it and come back and share, particularly as a primary teacher. We need to know more about science in elementary school."
The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to the best pre-college-level science and mathematics teachers from across the country. The winners are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level.
Originally, the NASA Explorer Schools project partnered with specific school teams selected to participate in the project. In 2010, the project was revamped to broaden the scope of schools that could participate, making NES resources available to any school that wants to use them. Today, the NASA Explorer Schools project is NASA's classroom-based gateway for middle and high school students. The project provides authentic learning experiences designed around NASA's unique missions while promoting student engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. NES allows students to participate in NASA's mission of research and discovery through inquiry-based experiences designed around the work of NASA scientists and engineers.
> NASA Explorer Schools project
> Zero Gravity Research Facility →
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services