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STEM Up to the Challenge
April 10, 2014

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Name: Melinda Higgins
Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
Previous Classroom or System Position: Upper School Chemistry Teacher
NASA Assignment: Einstein Fellow with NASA's Office of Education
Hobbies/Interests: Traveling and volunteering with family in the community, reading, hiking

As a teacher at an all-girls school, Nashville resident Melinda Higgins has spent years encouraging young women to pursue careers in science and technical fields. As an Einstein Fellow with NASA Education, she's learning new ways to bring STEM into public policy as well as ways to integrate engineering and NASA-specific content into curriculum at rural schools in Tennessee.

Describe your teaching experience before becoming an Einstein Fellow.

For 20 years I have had the unparalleled opportunity to lead young women to become scientifically engaged. At a very critical time in their development, I am entrusted with teaching them about chemistry, biology and engineering and why it is important in their lives. For some, it is crucial that they understand all concepts thoroughly so they can succeed in their next course of study. For all, it is important that they understand how important it is for science to be a part of their lives. It is more than just having a superficial understanding about how our world works: It is having the wherewithal to think critically and make crucial decisions based on that scientific knowledge. Science in general and chemistry in particular should guide the decisions made about the world we live in and how we personally interact with our environment.

After working in a biomedical engineering lab and writing curriculum based on that experience, I changed the way I taught for the last seven years to better avail my students to engineering access at a high school level. That, along with sponsoring a TSA (Technology Student Association) TEAMS engineering group to enter the engineering competition, helped my students realize that they could compete and be successful in science and engineering fields.

Whether in a formal class or informally through co-curricular activities, young women shape their own opinions about who they are, their strengths and their weaknesses. What I learned over 20 years is that teaching is so much more than just working with students in the classroom setting -- it is coaching them in the off-hours, supporting them when they need help, and actually encouraging them to ask for help when they need it.

Why did the Einstein Fellowship Program appeal to you?

The challenge of the Einstein Fellowship was extremely appealing. After many years of encouraging my students to take risks academically, I felt like it was my turn to model risk for them. I was at a point in my career where I felt as if I had changed education at a local level; I wanted to do more on a national level. I knew my knowledge in policy was not my strong suit, so I felt that putting myself in the middle of a town and an agency that runs on federal policy would be a personal challenge and a new adventure. It would also help my students realize that learning is a life-long process and their intellectual curiosity should last a lifetime.

What is your assignment as an Einstein Fellow at NASA?

I work at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and at NASA Headquarters. I had wanted the challenge of working in both places and am able to do this through sponsors in NASA’s Office of Education. It has been a wonderful decision with exceptional opportunities. I also have been able to work with many different people on widely various projects outside of NASA Education.

Understanding and engaging with the symbiotic relationship of the “how” at Headquarters and the “why” at Goddard develops a unique perspective. Policy, budget and interagency collaboration in line with Co-STEM are high-priority items at NASA Headquarters. Because Headquarters works on behalf of the entire agency, the colleagues at centers such as Goddard are able to accomplish their missions. The Office of Education works to support education in all facets of NASA. At Goddard, I have worked to recruit underrepresented groups such as women to the agency. I also developed activities to integrate engineering and educator experiential learning, as well as working with educational public outreach for particular missions to design and disseminate NASA-specific content to K12 educators. At Headquarters, I attend different types of meetings, for example, with external stakeholders who come to Washington on occasion to support a particular education cause. I am doing independent research that should result in a feasibility study on whether NASA Education can adapt practices used by grantees funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Teachers program. I am also researching and disseminating information related to the self-efficacy of women in engineering and science as well as suggested best practices for instructing and supporting this underrepresented group.

What do you hope to gain from being an Einstein Fellow?

Too often when you are in the practice of teaching, it completely consumes you. You work just on your craft, and every year there are new experiments and new approaches. As a researcher in the summer at Vanderbilt University through the Research Experience for Teachers program funded through the National Science Foundation, I was able to explore the research side of academics and expose my students to cutting-edge research. However, keeping abreast of current research in education policy was much more time-consuming. As an Einstein Fellow, I have been able to learn and engage with colleagues from all sectors: government, academia and industry. It is exciting to imagine how these three entities can work together to support STEM education in the United States and abroad.

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How will participating in the Einstein Fellowship Program affect you as an educator?

This fellowship has helped me to identify opportunities for women and girls to more fully integrate themselves into STEM careers. As an integral part of the fellowship, there are multiple professional development opportunities to visit and interact with education professionals at agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Library of Congress and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. These collected resources will be critical to include in STEM integration of curriculum upon my return to the classroom.

Already I have connected the students in my school and surrounding counties to the numerous opportunities that I have found though the Einstein Fellowship. I lead educator professional development in some of the rural counties in Tennessee, and I am very excited to share all of the information about available opportunities with them.

Many organizations participate in the Einstein Fellowship Program. What are the advantages of being at NASA?

NASA is by far the BEST agency to sponsor the Einstein Fellowship. I knew from the very beginning why I wanted to be with NASA, and it can be distilled down to one word: team. Everything that NASA engages in, from its missions to its administration to its Office of Education, is completely based on a team-focused effort to follow the agency mission. And the team is an amazing array of professionals at the top of their game! It is no wonder that NASA has been voted the top place to work.

What facets of education do you hope to help the government better understand?

I feel that having a veteran teacher who has grappled with major pressing issues such as underrepresentation of certain demographics in STEM sectors has provided a fresh perspective. Best practices can be shared to help curb the attrition of young women from STEM. It is readily apparent that students need to be aware that our national security is at stake. In the same way, it is imperative that our leaders in government undertake tangible action to curb the alarming attrition rates of young women pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in nonmedical or biological STEM fields.

Education has changed, and it needs to change even more to equip our young people for the world of tomorrow. The habits of mind necessary to incorporate critical and analytical thinking in our minds of the future must be taught in our schools with a new and innovative curriculum. Teachers and administrators who are all dedicated to change must embrace the need for the new standards of teaching and learning. They must nurture and support implementation of new standards. This critical move by the leaders in education will address and answer the need for 21st-century thinking skills to support our future society.

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?

As a member of the 2013-2014 Einstein Fellow cohort, I had the opportunity to stay on Patrick Air Force Base 45th Space Wing and attend the MAVEN launch as well as professional development activities at Kennedy Space Center. It was informative to learn about how this military space wing supports the efforts of NASA at Kennedy Space Center. Before the MAVEN launch, we were able to tour the facility. As science educators, we know that the best way for students to learn is through experiential processes. With the launch viewing opportunity, STEM educators were able to experience for themselves an incredibly historic launch. It is difficult to describe the feeling of experiencing in person what one has watched on television or media for most of their lives. The systems check count, the updates from control, the palpable excitement of the countdown, and finally to see and feel the action and reaction of the earth to the launch was incredible. I will forever help students to feel my excitement and passion about this event. It was especially significant because one of my Einstein Fellowship sponsors is Goddard Space Flight Center. The suite of instruments they provided was part of a total team effort to launch MAVEN to Mars.

 

On the Web:
Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program
NASA Education
NASA MAVEN Mission to Mars
More Profiles of NASA Einstein Fellows

Mindi Capp/NASA Educational Technology Services

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Melinda Higgins poses in front of a statue of Albert Einstein
After years of encouraging her students to take academic risks, Melinda Higgins is leading by example with an Einstein Fellowship with NASA Education.
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Melinda Higgins
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NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the 2014 Einstein Fellows
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden met with the 2014 Einstein Fellows at NASA Headquarters to discuss STEM education.
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Melinda Higgins
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Page Last Updated: April 10th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator