Name: Jennifer Kennedy
Hometown: Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Previous Classroom or System Position: Gifted Specialist and Robotics Instructor
NASA Assignment: Einstein Fellow with NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate
Hobbies/Interests: Traveling with family, reading, playing video games and building with LEGO
As a child, Jennifer Kennedy wanted to work for NASA. Now, as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow, she's getting a yearlong glimpse of what it's like to work with scientists, engineers and astronauts every day. And she's using her experience to inspire the next generation of NASA explorers.
Describe your teaching experience before becoming an Einstein Fellow.
I began my career in Marion, Iowa, teaching first and third grades. I taught in Iowa for seven years and then served as the Iowa Ambassador for Education during the 2002-2003 school year where I acted as an education liaison to primary and secondary schools throughout the state. Following that experience, I taught elementary gifted students near Huntsville, Ala., for five years. I was at Athens Middle School in Athens, Ala., for the past five years, serving as the school gifted specialist and robotics instructor. I also coached the school’s robotics team, Team B.E.A.S.T.
Why did the Einstein Fellowship Program appeal to you?
Robotics is a very specialized field. You don’t find too many teachers who get the opportunity to teach that every day. I saw the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship program as a way of connecting with other teachers like me. It has been an amazing opportunity to learn from other educators who have the same passion for STEM education as I do.
What is your assignment as an Einstein Fellow at NASA?
I work in the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., writing K-12 aeronautics lessons and doing school and community outreach.
What do you hope to gain from being an Einstein Fellow?
I came for the experience! I have such a better understanding of lesson design and publication. It is so rewarding to look at lessons I have worked on and know that I had a small part in making it happen. I also wanted to see STEM education from a national perspective.
How will participating in the Einstein Fellowship Program affect you as an educator?
For me, I had my "a-ha" moment standing in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. I had been to that museum dozens of times to look at the space artifacts, but I never paid much attention to the aircraft. But, during my fellowship, I worked on a lesson that encouraged students to research the major milestones, people and aircraft in the history of flight. When I returned to the museum after working on that lesson, it was like the airplanes had come to life right before my eyes. By seeing these historic aircraft in person, their accomplishments seemed so much more real to me.
This really drove home the importance of hands-on, experiential learning. As an educator, it is critical that we create opportunities for our students to experience what they are learning about, whether that be through experiments, field trips or role play. Reading, looking at pictures, or even watching a movie about a topic is good, but learning becomes so much more personal when the learner can experience it for themselves. I know that when I return to my classroom, I will be challenged to make learning more meaningful for my students.
Many organizations participate in the Einstein Fellowship Program. What are the advantages of being at NASA?
I have dreamed of working for NASA since I was 9 years old. While I may not be a pilot, scientist, engineer or astronaut myself, I get to work with them every day. I see it as my job as an educator to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers to work here at NASA. Teachers aren’t always valued or respected, but my opinions as an educator are highly valued here.
What facets of education do you hope to help the government better understand?
As a teacher of gifted students, I feel that those children have been left out of the educational discussion for too long. So much of our time in the classroom is devoted to children who are struggling that many times our brightest children are left to tend to themselves. We, as a nation, need to make sure that we are providing opportunities and challenges for our brightest students as well. Our children need the chance to build and experiment. They need classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics beginning the moment they enter school, and our gifted students need teachers and mentors that can help them reach even farther.
As an Einstein Fellow, you've taken part in a variety of events and opportunities. Is there one fun or exciting experience that you would like to share?
The Einstein Fellows were invited guests at a celebration commemorating the papers of Carl Sagan coming to the Library of Congress. The top astrophysicists and scientists from around the world came and told stories of how Carl Sagan had influenced their lives. It was so inspiring to hear each person tell of how one teacher, Carl Sagan, changed their life forever. It was his personal investment in each of their lives that helped them become the great scientists and engineers they are today. It was inspiring to me to know the power that a single teacher has in the life of his or her students.
And I got to meet Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy!
Mindi Capp/NASA Educational Technology Services