A Heart for Students
As a teenager, Jo Ann Charleston set up a makeshift classroom in her home and played teacher to her younger cousins. "My mom would allow me to kind of renovate the house and have a room and my bulletin board and give them lessons in the summer," Charleston recalled.
The Baton Rouge, La., native decided at a young age that she wanted to be a teacher, which is why her mom was surprised when Charleston changed her mind and decided to pursue a career as a chemist.
"When I decided I didn't want to be a teacher, she was like, 'Have you lost your mind?'" Charleston said. But her mom supported her daughter's goals and bought Charleston her first chemistry set.
Today, Charleston has experienced the best of both worlds. She became a chemist, earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Southern University in Baton Rouge in 1977. After college, Charleston went to NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. She worked in the Power Technology Division conducting research on batteries.
"I just knew that's where I was supposed to be and that NASA would have a lot of great opportunities," Charleston said.
Even as a NASA chemist, the "teacher" in Charleston came out. She volunteered to mentor students participating in NASA's summer internship programs. "I wanted to make sure I got an opportunity to talk to students and do career days," Charleston said. "I've always done that, so that was one of the things I was able to do to encourage students to go into science, technology, engineering or mathematics careers."
Ten years into her NASA career, Charleston changed course. A skills assessment, which she took as part of a professional development program, revealed that she was a "people person" and that she should consider working in administration or management.
Taking her education interests and technical background into consideration, Charleston applied for and was hired as a Research Grants and Fellowship Program Manager in Glenn's University Programs Office. She managed the center's internship project and worked with universities to develop research grants. NASA's internship programs support the agency’s goal of strengthening NASA's and the nation’s future workforce.
"It was a good fit for me because the person wanted someone who had a technical background but knew and understood how to work with students," Charleston recalled. "I really loved doing research, but I really liked working with students. That's always been my heart."
In the time that Charleston managed Glenn's internship projects, the number of students grew from 60 to 280. In the last 18 years Charleston has been promoted up the ranks of Glenn's Educational Programs Office and today is the Division Chief and the Center Education Director.
Charleston is responsible for managing all of the center's education programs, including NASA's Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy and the NASA Explorer Schools project. SEMAA serves underrepresented K-12 students, educators and families, while the NASA Explorer Schools project provides opportunities for educators, middle school students and families to become involved in NASA research. NES also strives to meet the local schools' needs in mathematics, science and technology. These K-12 projects support NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.
The Glenn Education Office also offers a number of internship opportunities available to high school and college students and provides fellowships for post-secondary students to participate in NASA's science and aeronautics research.
Charleston has been the recipient of more than 100 awards and honors from NASA and other organizations. She has received two of NASA's most prestigious awards: the Equal Opportunity Medal for her outstanding leadership in ensuring that minority youth receive educational opportunities that lead to careers in science and engineering, and the Outstanding Leadership Medal for outstanding leadership that has a pronounced effect upon the educational community and the technical and administrative programs at NASA. She also is a recipient of NASA's Exceptional Service Award.
She will soon add another prestigious award to her resume. She will be recognized at the 2008 Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference, Feb. 14-18, in the category of Educational Leadership and Promotion of K-12 Education. Recipients in the Educational Leadership category are recognized for promoting minority educational advancement in science, engineering or technology. The award is sponsored by Lockheed Martin Corporation, The Council of the Engineering Deans of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the magazine U.S. Black Engineer & Information Technology.
Charleston said the upcoming award is one she is proud of and an honor because it is one where she was nominated by her peers. The nomination included letters of support from students she has helped along the way. "They have to submit recommendation letters and endorsement letters about what they've seen in you in terms of your achievements ... in encouraging minority students to go into STEM or become more aware of opportunities in STEM," Charleston said. "It's really based on what others see in me and not what I say -- the fruits of what I've done."
The letters of support were written by students who are now university professors or vice presidents of companies. In the letters, Charleston's former students detailed how she, through the NASA projects, made a difference in their lives. "That meant a lot to me, because it tells me that the time and energy and the long hours I spent have really made a difference, especially for minority students,” she said. "For them to be able to come back and share that with me, I know that my work is not in vain."
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Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services