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Witnessing Science Firsthand
Jenay Sharp Leach holds a small shuttle part

Jenay Sharp Leach uses a shuttle tire segment during a training for museum educators on a new NASA education resource. Image Credit: Jenay Sharp Leach

As participants in the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program, teachers have the opportunity to make contributions in public policy. The program allows government leaders to hear firsthand from classroom educators and learn about the real-world issues teachers confront. However, the fellowship is definitely a two-way street, according to Jenay Sharp Leach, a science specialist at Woodley Hills Elementary in Alexandria, Va., who said her participation as a current Einstein Fellow is providing many benefits she'll take back to her school.

Describe your background as an educator.

I have taught high school physics and elementary school science, grades K-6.

Why did the Einstein Fellowship Program appeal to you?

The Einstein Fellowship is an opportunity to make a difference at the national level. I have worked to improve teachers’ access to high-quality science materials at both the local and state levels, and the Einstein Fellowship was a chance for me to broaden my reach. The Fellowship is described as "where classroom practice informs policy." I wanted to bring my teacher's perspective to the national educational arena, because I see a great need for people with classroom experience to contribute to the national discussion on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

What is your assignment as an Einstein Fellow at NASA?

I am in the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, where I work on K-12 curriculum.

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

I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the policy process. I have been surprised by how much interaction I have had with education policy here at NASA. My sponsor is teaching me about the use of educational data and its impacts on policy and, consequently, its impacts on NASA's educational programs. I am learning how all of the facets of NASA Education work together and how NASA Education fits into the agency as a whole. I hope to further increase my understanding of the relationships among the federal agencies, Congress, school districts, teachers and students. I want to be an effective conduit of resources among these channels.

How will participating in the Einstein Fellowship Program impact you as an educator? (Now and Future)

I have been able to witness the science and engineering work of NASA firsthand, and now I will be able to bring that experience to my students. Something classroom teachers often struggle with is presenting the real-world applications of their teaching content. Though I have a degree in physics, I never worked as a "physicist"; I went straight into the classroom. Being able to tell my physics students about crash landing lunar probes and to explain how winglets increase fuel efficiency will enable me to deliver richer science instruction to my students.

I have also gained an awareness of the resources that are available to educators that I did not know existed before I became a Fellow. The Fellows are a highly connected network of educators, and I have learned from them, as well as from NASA. When I go back into the classroom, I am going to encourage my school to become a NASA Explorer School, and I am going to use the power of the NASA brand to inspire my students. I would also like to participate in summer research experiences for teachers, because as I stated above, the real-world applications of NASA's research and development have made an impact on me as an educator.

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

I have gained an appreciation for NASA, its missions and its educational programs. I once had the privilege to hear author and speaker Simon Sinek at a NASA conference, and he said that NASA is "a symbol of living your dreams." That statement really resonated with me because I realized that NASA has a crucial role to play in inspiring the nation's next generation of innovators. I myself have been inspired by the work that NASA is doing. I have had the opportunity to visit several of the centers (and even to see a shuttle launch!), and being so close to cutting-edge research was incredible. NASA is bringing the excitement of STEM to children and working to create a STEM-capable workforce. It is humbling to be a part of a world-renowned organization.

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

I want the people of our government to understand that education is not what it was when they went to school. I graduated from high school just 10 years ago, and education has already changed dramatically. The standards movement and high stakes testing have had tremendous impact on the curriculum. Teachers need resources that will work in today's classroom. The resources need to be grounded in the state standards, in a flexible format to fit increasing time constraints and adaptable to the needs of many diverse learners. Science curriculum in particular needs to be inquiry-based. Research shows that this method is the most effective for engaging students and increasing student achievement. The students need to act as scientists by asking questions, designing and conducting their own authentic experiments, collecting data and making observations, and drawing their own conclusions based on an analysis of this data. Inquiry-based instruction is intensive, and it requires a skilled educator to guide the students in their explorations. The government can help by providing the resources -- teacher training, inquiry-based curriculum, grants for materials, etc. -- to facilitate using this method.

Related Resources:
› Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program   →
› Video: Einstein Fellow Jenay Sharp Leach -- Living My Passion
› NASA Education
› NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate   →
› NASA Explorer Schools   →
› More Profiles of Einstein Fellows

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services