Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics. It’s no secret that NASA has a workforce built on STEM careers. There is a lot of discussion about the importance of STEM careers and how critical it is to the U.S. that more students get their degrees in a STEM field. But before we can have students pursuing STEM fields, we need to have engaging and excited educators to teach these students. NASA knows the importance of education and mentoring, and the agency is a strong proponent of supporting STEM educators.
NASA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer is one area that requires specialized workers in technology -- aka the T in STEM. In 2010, the OCIO awarded two educators the first NASA Excellence in Teaching Award, an award that recognizes K-12 educators for the innovative use of NASA technology within their curriculum. The NASA information technology community presented the award to educators Pam Leestma of California and Neme Alperstein of New York. They received this award for their innovative team teaching approach using technology to connect their students.
Leestma and Alperstein live on two different coasts: Leestma teaches at Valley Christian Elementary School in Bellflower, Calif., and Alperstein taught fifth grade at NYC Public School in Rego Park, N.Y. Using NASA technology, the two educators, one in a private school and one in a public school, have spent over 14 years connecting their students from across the country, forming a technology-driven education environment. Through their collaboration, their students have interacted with astronauts and scientists using podcasts, video conferences, webcasts, blogs, websites and virtual field trips.
NASA thought it would be a good idea to find out what has happened with educator Pam Leestma since her award in 2010. So we caught up with her to see how it has impacted her efforts as an educator and how she’s used technology in her classroom. One way that Leestma has used NASA resources in her classroom is by having a Digital Learning Network Videoconference as a culminating event with NASA expert Michael Hare from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. To prepare for the videoconference, the children worked together and met regularly on what they called “NASA Fridays” with their sixth-grade Buddies at her school. Leestma used the Teach Station website and its resources to teach the children about living and working on the International Space Station. Students made models of the space station with the SpaceX Dragon capsule attached. The students worked with their sixth-grade Buddies and parents to make the models. More than 50 students participated in this event, including 10 parents. The children enjoyed presenting their models to NASA during their videoconference, then NASA presented updated information about the SpaceX Dragon. Leestma shared the success of this event with SpaceX, and they have since asked for her input for future educational events. Leestma’s class also enjoyed a webcast with NASA Headquarters, where an expert talked about Mars and the Curiosity rover.
Every year, Leestma organizes the Annual Star Gazing Party for school families and makes sure it has plenty of NASA activities and resources for the students and their families to take home. This year about 200 people attended. The evening had a STEM theme with a space shuttle tile demo, a robotic “hands-on” fun table, a presentation about robotics at NASA, a display of Planet Projects made by the second-graders, plus space station calendars and more. The Columbia Memorial Space Center also participated in the event.
Leestma took two weeks in summer 2011 to conduct space science classes she developed using NASA resources. The classes were held at the Youth Science Center in Hacienda Heights, Calif. Roughly 25 students attended. Leestma held a special event with her students for the last space shuttle launch in 2011 and had news coverage from a local affiliate. In 2012, Columbia Space Center in Downey, Calif., asked Leestma to be on its board of directors. She’s taught her space science classes at the Columbia center during both summer and winter breaks, with about 50 children attending the classes. For summer 2012, Leestma taught a week of space science classes during STEM week at her school.
In her space science classes, Leestma uses and touches on a number of NASA resources and topics. These include robotics at NASA, Robonaut 2 and the Canadarm, living and working on the International Space Station and in microgravity, the Deep Space Network, the Hubble Space Telescope, and much more.
The last three years since winning the Excellence in Teaching Award have been full of rewarding opportunities for Leestma as an educator. Of the experience she writes, “I feel NASA has all the resources teachers need to inspire and ignite the spark in their students. It does take dedicated teachers, who have the heart and passion to work at finding what is out there, even when at times they can be overwhelmed with the challenges of teaching. Just know that it’s worth every effort because teachers will be motivated by discovering great joy when those ‘WOW!’ moments happen. Find a STEM topic and NASA can provide! Use their websites, look for and attend teacher conferences and workshops, watch webcasts and webinars, keep updated by watching NASA TV, and find NASA challenges for students to participate in. The NASA Education family must keep giving educators ‘the Right Stuff’ because we as teachers are looking at future STEM careers sitting right in front of us! NASA, please continue to gives us the tools to inspire! We need you!”
Educator Neme Alperstein also has had a productive three years since the award. Of her experience she writes, “Receiving the NASA Teaching in Excellence Award was a tremendous honor, humbling and influential in promoting my educational career. When I moved to my new school, PS 174 William Sidney Mount, that award clearly resonated with administration, my students and their families in an enthusiastic embrace of NASA activities in the classroom. Families have celebrated our activities by attending our videoconferences with NASA's Digital Learning Network. … NASA's award has expanded my ability to extend education outreach to bring STEM learning to students in our school. It has been instrumental in emphasizing the importance our classroom investigations activities, which are aligned with the new Common Core standards. From the platform NASA has given me through this award, we have been able to enhance student use of online NASA resources, and it has unquestionably bolstered student enthusiasm for an innovative way to learn. The award has been what my students and their families interpret as an endorsement to get involved with NASA competitions and projects. I see it as prestigious recognition that has given me the freedom to encourage student "out-of-the-box" thinking through science and technology. NASA's recognition has resulted in a snowball effect for student engagement. Family support and feedback convince me that parents understand the power of this award. What better endorsement than to have parents’ enthusiasm for the innovative learning that NASA continues to offer?”
It’s no secret that NASA and technology go hand-in-hand. NASA recognizes the need for a future workforce that is STEM-literate, so that it can continue its many diverse missions. For students to pursue those STEM careers, NASA needs educators who are excited and knowledgeable to teach students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Engaging students early in their education experience is a great way to get them excited about STEM, and using NASA resources and technology is a sure way to fire their desire to aim high.
On the Web:
Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services