Helping Rural Students Take Flight
Growing up in a small town, April Lanotte says that many people saw NASA as a place where "other people" did things. She's trying to change that perspective as an Einstein Fellow working with NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.
Describe your teaching experience before becoming an Einstein Fellow.
My career as a science educator was not a traditional one, since I began my career as an English teacher in the U.S.-Mexico border town of Calexico, Calif. While in Calexico, I taught English, social studies and drama for three years. From there, I went to graduate school at Colorado State University, where I taught English composition as a part of my master's degree in English literature.
At this point, you probably wonder how I consider myself a science educator. It was during my time at CSU that I reignited my passion for space science. As I began to write heavily about science, I was inspired by two professors who successfully straddled the English and science disciplines ... As I became more involved in science while writing about the subject, I realized that my true passion was for the science itself.
Already hooked on teaching students, I finished my master's degree and moved to Colorado Springs, where I taught English at the middle school level. At the same time, I began to work with the U.S. Space Foundation and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on a second master's degree in science education. I earned my science teaching certificate and began to teach science and English at the middle school level.
I then moved out to the eastern plains of Colorado to teach high school science full time. Since my district and school had such a small population, I was responsible for all of the high school science subjects. While there, I finished my master's degree in science education. I was still teaching science in the small town of Simla, Colo., when I became an Einstein Fellow.
Why did the Einstein Fellowship Program appeal to you?
Growing up in a small town, I was often surrounded by people who looked at NASA and other large agencies and organizations as places where OTHER people did things. I love being from a small town, and I love teaching in a small town, but I want to show students that there are many options out there ... My parents always taught me that I could do anything I wanted, and they meant it. They may not have had connections to opportunities that some people have, but they reinforced that it's not who you know, but what you can dream of and what you can do with hard work and dedication that counts.
I have always loved NASA. From my childhood days spent in the field with my Dad and his telescope, to my graduate school days writing my thesis about the space shuttle program and its impacts, to my own classroom teaching about the Wright Brothers and the design process, NASA has always been a part of my life.
If I hope to teach students about going after what they want, then I need to lead by example. That philosophy led me to apply for the fellowship program. I don’t want to just teach students about what others have done, or sit around the teacher's lounge talking about what others decided about education; I've wanted to be a part of the larger picture. And here I am, doing what I absolutely love, and thinking about what this could mean when I return to Colorado.
How will participating in the Einstein Fellowship Program affect you as an educator?
I want to have a more active role in the development and implementation of educational guidelines and programs. I want to help bring rural education and the issues surrounding rural education into focus while I’m here at NASA and in Washington, D.C., which will allow me, in return, to take what I learn here in Washington and at NASA back to rural education in Colorado. This is an amazing opportunity for me to bridge the giant gap between life in a rural Midwestern area and educational opportunities that oftentimes begin in Washington, D.C.
Many organizations participate in the Einstein Fellowship Program. What are the advantages of being at NASA?
My initial response is, "Because it's NASA!!!" However, I think you would like me to elaborate. Personally, from the outside I have always loved NASA and all things space and aeronautics. I grew up looking through telescopes and dreaming of becoming an astronaut. As a writer, I have always been interested in writing about space and other science topics. As a lifelong learner, I have always loved learning about the skies and the heavens. And as a teacher, there is nothing I love more than teaching about earth and space science, especially using NASA content.
So, to work with NASA, what could be better? While here for my fellowship, I have switched from being a consumer of NASA educational products to a producer of NASA educational content. I serve as a liaison between what is being done on the larger scale at an agency level and how the everyday classroom teacher uses that material.
What I've discovered here at NASA is the amazing passion people have for what they do and who they work for. Whether it is an engineer working directly on NASA hardware, a project analyst for one of the many ongoing programs, or the person working at the gift shop, there is the overall sense -- sometimes stated and other times just felt -- that we are all working together for something wonderful. My parents always taught me and my siblings to do what means the most to us, and my husband has always pushed me to push myself. Since I've been here at NASA Headquarters, I've felt the camaraderie of an agency with a great mission. Even though I am a fellow here and am not an employee, I have been welcomed to the NASA family and have been guided and taught by intelligent, energetic people who are at the top of their fields. NASA has a great reputation -- who doesn't know NASA? But now I see a sliver of how that reputation has been earned and how carefully the agency works to uphold that reputation.
What facets of education do you hope to help the government better understand?
While working here in Washington, D.C., I am struck by the enormous scope of federal agencies. However, I have seen that it is sometimes difficult to take the larger, overall picture and turn it into the smaller pixels that make up our nation's collage.
I would like to be able to bring some of the more practical educational considerations into the larger decisions that are made ... The educational challenges each area of our country faces are unique, and what one school needs may not help a different school in a different situation.
I have been lucky enough to have taught on a border town in California; an inner-city district in Pittsburgh, Pa.; a suburban school in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and a rural school on the eastern plains of Colorado. Each of these locations had its own situations and its own needs. I hope that my experiences in each of these places allow me to look at the realistic needs of multiple educational situations and help to develop strategies that can address both the commonalities and the individual requirements of a large variety of educational situations. While we often hear about the needs of certain school populations, I would like to make sure that rural
students (who make up over one quarter of U.S. students) and their challenges are addressed.
In what ways have you been able to offer any practical insight to government staff about establishing and operating education programs?
Since I was born and raised in the small town of Mars, Pa., (yes, I am really from Mars!) and have over 14 years of teaching experience ranging from middle school through college, I have had the opportunity to experience public education in many settings. Since many government staff may not have been in the classroom as teachers or adult observers, especially in the K-12 arena, I have been able to offer practical advice. Since I have used NASA curriculum support materials as well as other curricula, I have a different vantage point about products and activities. Moving from theory and outcomes to the "everyday-ness" of the classroom is no easy task, and it is easy to overlook aspects that mean the difference between a good idea and a good product.
Tell us about an exciting or interesting activity that you’ve been involved in during your fellowship at NASA.
I am developing new curriculum support materials that focus on an exciting and ongoing research project within the ARMD (Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate). These new materials will take ... current research about a jet engine icing phenomenon and teach students about scientific concepts related to this research (such as weather, physics of water, and cross-curricular skills such as map-reading and communications skills) ... NASA is at the forefront of research about this problem, a problem that can potentially affect anyone flying within these mysterious weather conditions.
It is exciting to develop educational resources that allow students to see the research process firsthand, learn skills necessary for this kind of research, and highlight some of the important research that happens in ARMD. Other directorates within NASA such as the Science Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate have had robust educational components to their research activities. However, ARMD has not had built-in educational components to their missions, so their content has not traditionally focused on current research happening within the directorate. Helping to bring a new type of content to aeronautics education is exciting.
How will you carry your experience with aeronautics education to your next job assignment?
The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate is not often seen by the public as the glamorous, or even well-known, directorate within NASA. Instead, most of the attention NASA receives has been about human space exploration or rockets. I am excited to bring aeronautics' message and all that is going on within NASA aeronautics to light with my students. I also hope to incorporate many existing NASA programs into schools, particularly rural schools, throughout the Colorado region. I am working on plans to ... develop new programs with existing organizations and colleges in Colorado that can offer new and exciting opportunities for rural students and their families.
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Mindi Capp/NASA Educational Technology Services