Texas Teacher Brings Astronomy to the Playground
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.

Joan Labay-Marquez

Joan Labay-Marquez's entry in the Hubble Top Stars contest was awarded a "Gold Star." Image Credit: Dan Stillman

Joan Labay-Marquez was in elementary school in San Antonio, Texas, in March 1979, when the space shuttle Columbia arrived for refueling at San Antonio's Kelly Air Force Base, piggybacking on a Boeing 747. She remembers the day clearly. "It was an amazing moment in history to see," said the facilitator for the gifted and talented for grades K-6 at the Curington Elementary School in Boerne, Texas, and "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 as "Top Stars" educators documenting exemplary use of the Hubble Space Telescope in science, technology, engineering or mathematics education. The top ten Top Stars were awarded "Gold Star" honors.

Labay-Marquez received her Gold Star title for "Playground Planetarium," a variety of novel weekly enrichment activities that she developed to get her students excited about astronomy and to introduce them to the amazing discoveries made by Hubble.

Although she has been fascinated with space exploration since she was young, says Labay-Marquez, her interest was rekindled in 2009 when she attended an event celebrating the International Year of Astronomy at San Antonio's Witte Museum. "I found my passion to learn more about space science and a strong desire to share what I had learned with my students," she said.

Around the same time, she received a poster from the website AmazingSpace.com featuring some stunning images taken by Hubble. "My students were totally engaged while doing the activities on the back of the poster, and we all learned some incredible information about what lies beyond our familiar planets," she said. This experience inspired her to develop Hubble-based classroom activities, leading eventually to the Playground Planetarium curriculum.

As part of the curriculum, students in K-3 visit the school's mobile planetarium. There, they learn to identify different constellations and learn about some of the myths surrounding the constellations. Next, the students draw their own constellations, name them and create myths surrounding them.

The fun doesn't stop there. The students also get to demonstrate their knowledge at the playground. They create their own planetarium on the school's dome-shaped climber by covering it with black poster paper and drawing on it from inside the climber.

Fourth- to sixth-graders participate in a different set of activities. They research the history of Hubble and other space telescopes, analyze Hubble images that show some of the farthest galaxies ever seen, and engage in Web-based activities and lesson plans.

"I love to share my students' excitement when they see an image from Hubble for the first time or hear them as they watch one of the videos about Hubble's discoveries," Labay-Marquez said. "They are captivated by the stunning images that they see, and they have an incredible imagination when they describe what they see in the images, no matter what grade they are in."

Some imaginative descriptions of nebulae -- interstellar clouds of dust and gas -- include human eyeballs and girls' bows, she added.

Labay-Marquez remembers her own "Wow" moment with Hubble, one that she was able to share with her family. They had gone to a nearby city to see an IMAX documentary about Hubble, she recalled. "It was incredible. I sat there amazed as I watched (the astronauts) work like outer-space surgeons on the most important patient we have watching our universe."

Technology is key to keeping students interested and involved in the classroom, according to Labay-Marquez. To that end, she uses "invention kits" that combine art and technology and regularly enhances classroom teaching with interactive websites.

But what does Labay-Marquez think is the best and most effective way to teach kids science? Asking questions, she says. That way, "they are more engaged in the activities and feel that they are part of the experience as opposed to just being an observer."

Related Resources:
› Top Stars   →
› Hubble Space Telescope   →
› Amazing Space   →
› More Profiles of Hubble Top Stars Gold Star Winners

Prachi Patel: Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
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