2005 NASA Einstein Fellow Tyson Tuchscherer
Tyson Tuchscherer and astronaut Barbara Morgan

NASA Einstein Fellow Tyson Tuchscherer is a member of NASA's Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, through which he met Barbara Morgan, a mission specialist and educator astronaut. Image Credit: Tyson Tuchscherer

Describe your teaching experience before becoming an Einstein Fellow.

I had the "experience of a lifetime" at the very beginning of my career when I traveled to rural South Australia for a three-year assignment as a science and biology teacher. ... With native Australian flora and fauna as my teaching tools, I involved students in educational camps and field trips so they could see, touch, hear and even taste the objects of their learning.

My first stateside job as a teacher was in Lakeview County, Ore. I taught science and moved into mathematics and technology education. Some of the other science teachers I knew wondered why I agreed to teach math because, unlike science, math is traditionally more tied to book work and paper-and-pencil problem solving. Furthermore, middle school students tend to abandon their enthusiasm for math at that age. But I was excited about the challenge of making math more approachable and relevant by bringing some of the tools of science education into my mathematics classroom.

Opportunities to do that came about when I introduced the Accelerated Math program to my middle school math classes, resulting in improved math scores on our state assessment. ... To further enliven math learning, I began to gravitate toward challenges and competitions as a means of increasing the energy and participation levels in my math classroom.

In this vein, I introduced the national MATHCOUNTS program to our school and volunteered as coach for 12 years. Most years our school's team won the regional competition, which was held at the Oregon Institute of Technology, and was invited to the state competition at Oregon State University.

I eventually helped introduce MATHCOUNTS in three different school districts, which bumped up regional participation in the competition to more than 10 schools each year. I was ultimately honored with a MATHCOUNTS coaching award, and four of my MATHCOUNTS students went on to receive scholarships from Oregon Institute of Technology.

Another hallmark of my teaching experience has been attending as many educational conferences and workshops as possible in order to discover new methods and tools and meet the creative and talented people who are pushing the envelope of math and technology education. ... At the 2000 National Science Teachers Association conference, I spoke to an inventor named Rick Rowland of Norland Research who was operating what looked like little cars mounted with Texas Instruments calculators.

Two small robots

During his NASA Einstein Fellowship, Tyson Tuchscherer helped develop the Calculator-Controlled Robots: Hands-On Mathematics and Science Discovery Educator Guide now available on the NASA Web site. Image Credit: Tyson Tuchscherer

The wheeled vehicles turned out to be small, inexpensive robots controlled by the calculator's programming tools. After experimenting with two CalcBots in my classroom, I began to realize the potential these small robots had for hands-on learning in math.

I asked Texas Instruments for help supplying each of my students with his or her own robot, and the company generously donated 30 robot assemblies and 30 calculators to our school. In return, I agreed to develop classroom learning activities for the Norland calculator robots. I devised ten "missions" that ranged from basic measuring and problem-solving exercises to space travel from the home planet "Libathonkey" (where pies are always squared) to probability and other math concepts.

My two original CalcBots, Alfred and George, turned out to be a breakthrough for me as a math and technology teacher. Because robots depend on computer programming, which is inherently math-based, they are natural tools for teaching math. They are also reminiscent of toys and provide endless opportunities for fun and games. In short, the CalcBots are the concrete, kinetic, hands-on tool to teach math that I had been looking for.

When NASA solicited applications from teachers for their Educator Astronaut program, I couldn't resist applying. I was one of 197 tier-one finalist candidates for the program. This put me among a group of enthusiastic professionals who became the Network of Education Astronaut Teachers.

Among many other unforgettable experiences, we participated in fantastic workshops at NASA's Johnson and Kennedy space centers and had the privilege of meeting teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan and the three teachers from our group who were selected to become NASA's first Educator Astronauts (two of whom are on the STS-119 space shuttle mission scheduled for February 2009). The rest of the NEAT group serve as eyewitnesses to the space program and NASA ambassadors in our schools and communities.

Why did the Einstein Fellow Program appeal to you?

For me, the Einstein Fellow Program represented the ultimate step in my quest to alter our understanding of how to teach mathematics in our schools by making math concepts and operations more enjoyable, compelling and "real" for our students.

From the beginning of my teaching career in Australia, and particularly when I migrated from science into mathematics and technology education, I carried with me a strong desire to make learning relevant and fun -- because that's how I like to learn. In my continuous search for new methods, tools and resources, I logged more than 1,000 hours of continuing professional education at workshops and conferences. The Einstein Fellowship presented an opportunity to offer back my own ideas for integrating math education with other subjects and teaching math as a graspable, practical means of solving real world challenges.

What was your assignment while an Einstein Fellow at NASA?

My fellowship took me to Washington, D.C., for a 10-month position as a math specialist for the NASA Explorers Schools project. During that time, I refined and refocused the calculator robot missions to include NASA-related activities and to satisfy national content and process standards for math, science and technology education for grades 6 to 8. I was also involved in helping NASA devise two classroom sets of robots that education specialists use in the NASA Explorers Schools project.

Also as part of my fellowship experience, I fed my appetite for learning and outreach when I attended a number of education and aerospace conferences, participated in teacher training workshops and meetings, visited government agencies involved in educational initiatives, met some of the nation's most talented and committed teachers, and made new connections in the nation's capital. Viewing the Marine Advanced Technology Education Remotely Operated Vehicle competition at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory was just one of the many experiences that added a new dimension to my knowledge.

What were your major accomplishments during your fellowship?

The calculator robots curriculum support materials that I augmented and aligned with national standards of learning was my most notable accomplishment during my fellowship. The activities were subjected to an independent peer review by master teachers and were approved as a NASA curriculum support material for math, science and technology teachers.

I also engaged in promoting the NASA curriculum support materials throughout the country and in my own community. For example, I presented the activities to NASA Aerospace Education Specialists in the NASA Explorers Schools project. ... I also shared the curriculum support materials with other teachers at the first NEAT conference in Houston, the national NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) conference in Atlanta, and on the Internet. In my own community, I taught the calculator robots activities to local teachers and have presented it at our school board meetings and at Lions and Rotary Club meetings.

What have you done since your fellowship, and what are you doing now?

Since the fellowship, I have been a research fellow with LMI Government Consulting, working as a special assistant to the Director of the National Defense Education Program in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in Washington, D.C. In this role, I focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in the K-12 component of the program and have been involved in the development of the Pre-Engineering Partnerships program.

The Pre-Engineering Partnerships program pairs civilian scientists and engineers from our nation's defense research laboratories with middle and high school teachers to help reinforce academic concepts with practical applications and experience. In local classrooms, the scientists and engineers participate in inquiry-based, hands-on activities, working alongside teachers to share their technical expertise and real world knowledge in math, science and engineering. As role models, they inspire youngsters to consider careers in these disciplines, and they also serve as a resource for teachers. The Pre-Engineering Partnerships program also provides summer training institutes for teachers and produces "LabTV," a series of free Web-based videos that introduce students and teachers to Department of Defense scientists and engineers and their exciting work.

Among the most rewarding experiences I have had with the National Defense Education Program is traveling to civilian defense laboratories to work with scientists and engineers engaged with teachers in educational outreach activities in local school districts. For example, I spent time at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division in Maryland setting up a program for students to build "Sea Perch" remotely operated submersible vehicles, and I traveled to the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in Arizona to lend a hand at a middle school rocket launch event.

How did participating in the Einstein Fellowship Program impact you as an educator?

The Einstein Fellowship Program afforded me experience with educational issues on a national scale and broadened my perspective on the pressing challenges we face as a nation in STEM education. Among these challenges is to integrate the teaching of technical subjects in order to make them relevant to today’s learners.

The fellowship experience also strengthened the intuitive notion by which I have taught throughout my career: that a teacher's highest calling is to inspire his or her students to love learning. Much of what we teach, particularly in science and technology, will be obsolete in a short span of time. For that reason, our students must acquire the skills and confidence to continuously learn new things. Infusing students with the love of learning requires teachers themselves to develop the skills of a learner and never play it safe but always be open to try something new. By immersing me simultaneously in the roles of both teacher and learner, the Einstein Fellowship gave me a platform from which to further explore these ideas for improving the way we present math to our students.

What legacy or impact did you leave behind at NASA?

The Calculator-Controlled Robots: Hands-On Mathematics and Science Discovery Educator Guide was recently made freely available nationwide on the NASA Web site. The guide includes a downloadable educator's manual and information on how to obtain the robot assemblies -- everything teachers need to use the calculator robot missions in their classrooms or in after-school programs. I hope the activities will motivate and inspire both teachers and students to recognize the relevance of math and how to put it to work to solve real problems, meet societal needs, and have fun in the process.

As I wrote in my application to become an Educator Astronaut: "I have a drive to help others and lift their spirits beyond the ordinary." To that end, I hope the work I did with NASA will help raise the level, energy, and rigor of science, mathematics and technology teaching and learning in our nation's schools.

Related Resources
National Defense Education Program   →
Calculator-Controlled Robots: Hands-on Mathematics and Science Discovery Educator Guide
Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program   →
NASA Education
NASA Explorer Schools   →
Teachers Educating NASA
From Alaska to Antarctica

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services