Educator Makes Science Fun With Help From Hubble
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?
The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that kids these days love technology and computer games. So incorporating them into the education process, says Sheree' Kearns, is a smart way to activate young imaginations.
"I have always believed the best way to remember something is to surround learning with fun activities that are minds-on and hands-on," said Kearns, senior flight director for the Kirby Smith Middle School Challenger Learning Center in Jacksonville, Fla., and a "Gold Star" winner in the NASA-sponsored "Top Stars" contest.
The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies conducted the contest in cooperation with the Space Telescope Science Institute to recognize educators documenting exemplary use of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in science, technology, engineering or mathematics education.
Kearns won a Gold Star -- awarded to the top ten Top Stars -- for her "Galactic Brain Buster," a question-and-answer computer game she devised to ignite interest among students in space and the cosmos. The game introduces concepts of astronomy and challenges players to distinguish between different types of galaxies and stars.
A second entry by Kearns, "Hubble Space Telescope Scavenger Hunt," also was selected as a Top Star. In that activity, high school students answer questions about Hubble by exploring articles, videos and photographs on the Hubble website.
Other accolades for Kearns include the Challenger Center President's Award and a Toyota SOAR award for "Disaster! Ground Zero at Watubu," a classroom activity that simulates the evacuation process for a small island nation that suffers three different disasters: a volcano threatening to erupt, a tsunami and a hurricane.
Kearns believes that if learning is fun, students will be more eager to study and the knowledge will stick.
"I am sure all of us have sat in a classroom and asked why we had to learn the skills or concepts being taught," said Kearns, who encourages students to become critical thinkers. "Building a bridge between the classroom and everyday life gives relevance to what is learned and also sets knowledge in reality."
Kearns grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and was captivated with rock formations early on. Pondering the landscape as a child, she wondered what kinds of forces created rocks and how mountains were formed. When the U.S. space program began, the future educator's attention was drawn upward to the heavens.
A neighbor brought out his telescope during summer nights and taught about the constellations and other wonders in the skies above. From then on, Kearns was sold on science.
"Being a creative youngster, I would take large cardboard boxes my Dad would bring home from the grocery store and draw dials and gauges on the box walls, cut out windows, and 'take journeys to the moon' along with the Apollo astronauts," Kearns said. "I told my Dad I would be the first woman to walk on the moon, and I would pick up rocks and bring them back to Earth."
Today, instead of walking on the actual moon, Kearns comes as close as possible without her feet ever leaving the ground. Her dream of becoming an astronaut came true in the sense that she does get to wear a flight suit to work and commands a mission simulation and mock space station.
Next to being an astronaut, Kearns says that working at a Challenger Learning Center and helping to inspire students toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers is the best job in the world.
"I especially enjoy the 'ah ha!' moments, when students suddenly 'get it,'" Kearns said. "They understand the relevance of all that math, science and technology they are learning in the classroom. They see the linkage. The students get excited about learning ... it's a 'Wow!' experience for us all."
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Karen Nozik, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies