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When NASA Called, I Said 'Yes'
Geraldine Robbins with statue of Einstein

Geraldine Robbins poses with a statue of the fellowship’s namesake Albert Einstein, a modern scientific giant. Image Credit: Kathryn Culbertson/The Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology

When Geraldine Robbins accepted a slot working with NASA in the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program, she knew she would get to be a part of something inspirational. She had no idea of the opportunities she also would have to help shape a new education policy for the nation. Through the Einstein Fellowship program, teachers have the opportunity to make contributions in public policy, and government leaders hear firsthand from classroom educators about the real-world issues teachers confront.

Describe your teaching experience before becoming an Einstein Fellow.

I hold a B.S. in chemistry and an M.S. in mathematics education, teaching and curriculum.

I began my career as a bench chemist, then environmental field chemist, then contractor and business owner. When I sold my business, I became a teacher. I enjoy mathematics so I looked for opportunities there.

Once in the classroom, I was uncomfortable with teacher-centered structures and sought alternatives. After almost four years, I returned to school and earned my master's degree in mathematics education, teaching and curriculum at the University of Rochester, N.Y. At the same time I sat for and passed the New York State mathematics teachers exam. With the exception of statistics, I have taught all of the middle and high school math curricula from pre-algebra to honors calculus. I have also taught physical science, chemistry and marine biology.

Why did the Einstein Fellowship Program appeal to you?

Education is key to our nation's future, and the idea of informing education policy on the federal level compelled me to apply to the program. In education, I can make a difference and the Einstein Fellowship is the tool for just that.

What is your assignment while an Einstein Fellow at NASA?

I am assigned to the Office of Education at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where I lead the evaluation of informal education programs and serve on several committees.

As evaluation lead, I design plans and conduct informal science education program assessment and evaluation, including the education evaluation for our May 14, 2011, Explore@NASA Goddard open house. I also write curriculum. Most recently, I co-wrote the Goddard infrared camera curriculum and evaluation that has been implemented and is used regularly throughout the northeastern United States.

In support of this work, I conducted an extensive literature review to identify "best informal science education, ISE, practices" and determine best ISE evaluation protocols. At some point during my fellowship, I will prepare my findings for publication.

I also serve on several committees. I am a member of a working group steering committee for the NASA Office of Education Vision and Oversight committee. This agency-level committee is charged with implementing NASA Education Design Team recommendations. The deliverables are an education governance charter and an Agency Education Framework update.

I serve on two Goddard-wide education committees. The first is the informal education working group whose goal is to strategically develop and deliver high quality, NASA-content driven informal education products. The second is the Explore@NASA Goddard education committee for the Explore@NASA Goddard open house. It is for this committee that I am preparing the May 14 evaluation.

Finally, I just completed work as co-investigator on an ad-hoc committee charged with conducting a feasibility study for an "over-the-top" middle school summer experience for students and educators. The deliverable was a high-level feasibility report. Evidence-based and data-driven, the report was submitted for review and approval the second week of March 2011. If implemented, the summer experience will be the first of many innovative opportunities that will be led by the Maryland Science Exploration and Education Center (Maryland SEEC Inc.) in its partnership with NASA.

Geraldine Robbins with a Hubble model in a television studio

Robbins explains a model of the Hubble Space Telescope during a video educational talk. Image Credit: Geraldine Robbins

What do you hope to gain from participating in the Einstein Fellowship Program?

I have several expectations of the Einstein Fellowship Program. I hope to impact education at the national level. Federal education policy and education at the agency level must have in it the voices of students and teachers. With the guidance and support of Bob Gabrys and Carmel Conaty at NASA Goddard, I have the opportunity to bring the voice of the classroom to the agency level. I also hope to understand the national education policy-making process. Instead of getting lost in the details of the classroom, I hope to step back during my fellowship year and take a broad look at the whole of education in this country. Finally, I hope to spend time with the other Einstein Fellows, discussing, dissecting and finding solutions to the challenge of STEM education in our nation.

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

I pursued the Einstein Fellowship for personal and professional growth. I hoped to use my fellowship to advance STEM education through student engagement in experiential learning, through appropriate use of technology, and through modeling peer-to-peer teaching and learning.

I had no idea how this opportunity would impact those I left behind. Leaving the classroom and relocating to Washington, D.C., was considered risky by both my students and my peers. Some students worried about the future of NASA while others said, "I am glad you can do something with a math degree other than teach."

I am not the same person I was eight short months ago. Goddard Space Flight Center is 100 times larger than Episcopal High School, and Washington, D.C., is very different from Jacksonville, Fla. The level of intelligence, production and commitment is inspiring and intimidating at the same time. When I first arrived, I hoped I could make a difference. Now, I know I have and will continue to make a difference for education in our nation.

Many organizations participate in the Einstein Fellowship Program. What are the unique benefits of being involved at NASA?

It is that elusive word -- "inspire" -- and I am hooked. NASA inspires us to greatness and to worlds beyond. What other agency has sent people to space and brought them back safely? What other agency is right now planning to send a spacecraft to Mars? When NASA called, there was no question what my answer would be. When NASA called, I said "yes."

As an educator, what do you hope to help the government better understand about the education community?

1. Education is an issue of national security, and education reform cannot come from the top down. Just as in the classroom, change must grow organically. Educators must be given the opportunity to rise and lead without being stifled by the atmosphere of compliance that pervades schools today.

2. What is education if not for the students? High expectations supported by committed parents and effective teachers make up the recipe for student success.

3. The industrial model of schools and education is outdated and must be revised. As with educator-leaders, students must be given opportunities to direct their learning and become leaders in the classroom. The new model of education will include non-school environments with individualized study. Literally, the sky is the limit!

4. Admittedly, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a good beginning. It emphasized equity in public education and data-driven decisions. As the years went on, content was diluted and teaching and learning stifled. The next iteration should use the lessons learned from NCLB to build a stronger foundation for student achievement and teacher quality. I am right now contributing to the rewrite of ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act)/NCLB, something I would never have imagined a few short months ago.

Related Resources:
› Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program   →
› NASA Education
› More Profiles of Einstein Fellows

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services