Name: Paulo Oemig
Hometown: Las Cruces, N.M.
Previous Classroom or System Position: Eighth-Grade Physical Science Teacher
NASA Assignment: Einstein Fellow with NASA's Office of Education at Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA Headquarters
Hobbies/Interests: Using Skype to keep in touch with family, therapeutic running, reading and studying, visiting museums, and personal writing
Being a middle school science teacher has shown Paulo Oemig that teaching is a science, a skill and an art. As a NASA Einstein Fellow, Oemig is bringing this multidimensional insight to the government sector.
Describe your teaching experience before becoming an Einstein Fellow.
Prior to becoming an Einstein Fellow, I taught eighth-grade physical science in the Las Cruces Public Schools District at Zia Middle School in Las Cruces, N.M., for seven years. I also taught an integrated elective class introducing students to engineering practices and design and have been involved in various academic enrichment programs. I have been the adviser and coach to after-school programs such as Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA); Science Olympiad; New Mexico Best Robotics; Project GUTS (Growing Up Thinking Scientifically); and Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA). All these programs share the objective to provide students field trips, speakers, academic competitions, and curricula enriched by scientific design, problem-solving and systems modeling.
For the last two years, I participated in the DISSECT (DIScover SciEnce through Computational Thinking) project mentoring science graduate students to collaboratively develop educational modules and increase interest in science-, technology-, engineering- and mathematics-related fields in middle grade students. I am part of the Las Cruces Public Schools Teacher Leader Spaceport Advisory Board working toward improving STEM initiatives. As a Solar System Educator Program (SSEP) volunteer, I have presented and disseminated information about science and NASA missions to a wide range of audiences.
Why did the Einstein Fellowship Program appeal to you?
I believe teaching is a science, a skill and an art. Education is a complex process, which entails taking risks for both the educator and the student. As an educator, I must challenge my students to be genuinely interested in learning and must seek opportunities to grow professionally and personally. Naturally, the fellowship was a perfect match for me as it offered that potential for growth. As a doctoral student at New Mexico State University in the curriculum and instruction department, I am very interested in educational policy and equity issues surrounding underrepresented students, science and bilingual education. I saw the fellowship not only as a chance to learn from briefings, research, interactions and understanding the reasoning of top-down reforms but, equally important, as an opportunity to contribute my voice and experience to educational discussions. As teachers, I feel our voices are ignored or lost in the midst of partisan pride or not sought after for the sake of expediency.
What is your assignment as an Einstein Fellow at NASA?
I'm fortunate to be working on projects that dovetail well with my graduate studies at New Mexico State University. Part of my work focuses on a literature review to identify best practices and evidence-based research for the agency's education portfolio. STEM engagement and educator professional development are the focus of my efforts. My goal, multidisciplinary in nature, is to identify resources of the education portfolio and strategically leverage them within the education community across diverse organizations.
I have already worked with two such organizations: ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, a group of charter schools in Philadelphia, and the District of Columbia College Access Program, or DC-CAP. (ASPIRA is a form of the Spanish verb "aspirar," to inspire.) These types of organizations serve underserved and underrepresented students. I have coordinated briefings with them and presented information regarding opportunities NASA has to offer. These collaborations do not hinge on an exchange of information alone; they hinge on identifying practices and systemic STEM programs to maximize the impact of NASA's unique capabilities within NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and its range of influence.
I am collaborating on an ongoing project with Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio to evaluate how NASA's scientific stories, through apps designed for the general public, are used in the school setting. I facilitate feedback between a school in Baltimore, Md., and the Scientific Visualization Studio, making recommendations for improvements or new features. This assignment brings me back to the school setting and, as such, I always look forward to the visits. I have also sought out opportunities to visit various schools to interact with students and teachers and infuse kids with inspiration from NASA's wonders. These visits are truly rewarding.
What do you hope to gain from being an Einstein Fellow?
What I am gaining from the Einstein Fellowship is something intangible but profound in terms of knowledge and understanding of educational policy at the federal level and in terms of leveraging resources to support systemic education programs. This is invaluable cultural capital for my practice as an educator and advocate for non-mainstream students. I hope to continue reaching out to policy makers to remind them of the humanistic understanding of education and the holistic approach necessary for the well-being of children and their future achievements.
How will participating in the Einstein Fellowship Program affect you as an educator?
Learning and curiosity are a never-ending journey. I know how empowering education can be. I have witnessed the expression on students' faces when they recognize their knowledge has enabled them to achieve first place in academic pursuits, seen the pride in parents when an A is accomplished, and been part of "ah-ha" moments of understanding. Unfortunately, education does not serve all equally. As a pupil, I remember those teachers who really cared about their students. As an educator, I embrace those qualities and find that scientific and education theories alone fall short of guaranteeing my students' success. By participating in the fellowship, I want to continue my praxis of understanding the causes to effect positive changes and to know how to address the challenge of transforming inequitable power relations. In transforming these relations I know the advantages of STEM will be attainable for all students.
Many organizations participate in the Einstein Fellowship Program. What are the advantages of being at NASA?
I am a kindred spirit with NASA; the agency's commitment to underserved and underrepresented students is truly inspiring. This is the primary and foremost advantage: it's almost electrifying. Being at NASA is rewarding because the agency not only stimulates scientific and technological endeavors, but understands and acts on the totality of human dignity and dimension, and knows that from diversity and creativity new frontiers are possible.
Being able to learn about NASA's dynamic scientific missions, educational resources and opportunities and share them with my district is another advantage. In these learning opportunities I have, for instance, been able to become a NASA Galileo Educator Network Fellow, which enables me to train other teachers and foment space science content with NASA resources; become a Space Foundation Teacher Liaison, to advocate for space-based education and policy; and be accepted to the NASA MicroGravity eXperience (Micro GX) to fly an experiment, with four other Einstein Fellows, on board a specially modified Boeing 727 aircraft.
Another important advantage of being at NASA is that I have been able to present papers at conferences combining my research and relevant educational policy. For instance, I presented at the 42nd National Association for Bilingual Education Conference in Florida, was the keynote speaker at the Fifth Annual Southern New Mexico STEM Conference and will be presenting my research on bilingual education at New Mexico State University. As a teacher, these opportunities to actively contribute to the educational arena are invaluable but also extremely difficult to realize without funding and overall support. I am extremely grateful to have both at Goddard and NASA Headquarters.
What facets of education do you hope to help the government better understand?
I hope the government pays particular attention to an education system that needs to stop focusing on deficiencies and classifying students based on this mentality. Instead of labeling students as ESL (English as a Second Language) or LEP (Limited English Proficiency), we should focus on what they can do and support the growth of the overall child. Deficit thinking promotes fragmentation with effects compounded in high-stakes testing.
In my opinion, a market-like system of education and one-size-fits-all approach to reform will never work in a nation as diverse as ours. The rigid accountability system promotes rewards and punishments in draconian fashion. I want the government to understand that children are being overwhelmed with high-stakes tests, and that we should pause to listen to students' and teachers' thoughts, because we are in the classrooms. My contention is simple: I support wholeheartedly formative and summative assessments as they inform my practice, but these should be for learning rather than of learning and for the allocation of punishments. I believe the government, when it comes to our nation's future, should seriously and honestly question whose interests are being served and whose are not.
Have you been able to offer any practical insight to government staff about establishing and operating education programs?
Every opportunity I have while attending briefings in D.C. or presenting at conferences, I suggest the need for a reciprocal accountability or balanced model of accountability. The purpose in this model is not to label schools as successes or failures but to improve the learning of all involved and offer constructive guidance at the local level.
I have also initiated a dialogue with the office of New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and Spaceport America staff regarding the Spaceport Welcome Center and provided input on how it should be designed as a learning center. As such, I envision it as a place where NASA educational content is available via digital technologies, where educators in southern New Mexico engage in relevant STEM professional development via online and/or blended delivery, and where students can learn aerospace engineering and space-related science through various environments.
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