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Educator Voice: How space education brings vibrancy to the classroom

July 20, 2019

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Amelia Scholte from Pam Leestma’s 2nd grade class sharing the ISS truss she made proving the triangle shape is the strongest.  Photo courtesy of Pam Leestma

Editor’s note: Fifty years ago on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew set foot on the moon. One group who is particularly excited about the anniversary include space science educators, specifically those who attended the annual Space Exploration Educators Conference, a.k.a. “SEEC,” at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, last February. The conference brings together hundreds of teachers from across the globe, and to say they are over the moon about teaching the next generation about space is the understatement of the universe (sorry, space puns are just easy). Read the teachers’ stories about the conference and see if you’re not tempted to head to Houston next year. Be sure to check out NewsHour’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

One day one of our kids will walk on the surface of Mars by Michelle Mohreis

Michelle Mohrweis is a robotics and engineering teacher at Bogle Jr. High in Chandler, Arizona. She says middle school students are “truly the future of our world.”

Michelle Mohreis, Liam Kennedy and Carlos Fontantot in front of Michelle’s presentation on using the High Definition Earth Viewing system in the classroom. Photo courtesy of Michelle Mohreis

Presenting at the Space Exploration Educators Conference (SEEC) is no ordinary experience. Educators are treated to a watch party of NASA’s High Definition Earth Viewing experiment when the Cygnus spacecraft departed from the International Space Station (ISS). They then get to hear Carlos Fontanot, Imagery Manager for ISS, give a play-by-play of what was happening as Cygnus left.

SEEC brings together educators from around the world. It allows experts and educators to share their knowledge and inspire each other. In turn, we take what we learned back to our classrooms to inspire the next generation of astronauts, scientists and engineers. One day one of our kids will walk on the surface of Mars. I can only hope that by teaching my students about space, I might help them make it there!

Three years ago, I was a new teacher who was struggling to fit science into my classroom. I attended SEEC for the first time and was inspired by the ways other teachers used space to bring science into every aspect of their teaching. Now, just a few years later, I teach engineering and robotics at a junior high. Space is my most powerful tool for inspiring my students and engaging them in learning. SEEC truly was a life changing conference.

Teacher Michelle Mohrweis in front of NASA’s space shuttle at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Photo courtesy of Michelle Mohrweis

How space education unites all disciplines by Brady Loomer

Brady Loomer is a high school science and space educator at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass.

Teacher Brady Loomer at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Space Center Houston during SEEC (Space Exploration Education Conference). Photo courtesy of Brady Loomer

I believe that the beauty of space education is that it has the ability to unite all disciplines of education, eliminating the vacuum of content that sadly exists too often in education. While the idea that we need to entertain students in order to gain their attention is misguided at best, what is necessary is content areas that pique students’ curiosity and imagination. Space does this. On top of the fact that space is an interesting and fascinating area, space exploration is on the leading edge of human progress, in terms of technology, scientific discovery and global citizenship.

In order to best prepare our students for the future, space education must be a part of the broader education conversation. Sadly, it is not. Just the other day, a student asked me if any human had ever been sucked into the sun. When I replied with the obvious “No,” I was aghast at the fact that this student somewhere along in his prior education hadn’t learned the basics of human space exploration. If we are to secure the future for our students and our country, we must fund and treat space education as an imperative, a simple way to secure our future while ensuring that students stay interested in STEM education.

Teacher Brady Loomer and Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and author of “Chasing New Horizons Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto.” Photo courtesy of Brady Loomer

Once in a lifetime by Cammie Newmyer

Cammie Newmyer is the 2018-2019 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow and author of “Math That Makes Sense.” She is a 19-year veteran secondary math teacher in high-need school districts in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado, and has worked with highly at-risk teens for the last seven years.

The Space Exploration Educator’s Conference provides authentic immersive experiences like scuba diving with the team that trains the astronauts. Photo courtesy of Cammie Newmyer

From the heart, the best thing about SEEC is how it changed my life. I came to my first SEEC four years ago. I was considering quitting teaching. The tours, the experiences, the speakers all inspired me. Mind-blowing iconic space experts like New Horizons’ Dr. Alan Stern and the legendary Gene Krantz who honor and value teachers. The friendships and connections I made with other educators, scientists and field professionals that brought my heart back to STEM education and opened doors I never imagined.

Cammie Newmyer (middle) listening to and watching the video of the just released Brian May (founding member of Queen and astrophysicist) song “New Horizons” during a talk by principal investigator of that expedition, Dr. Alan Stern. Photo courtesy of Cammie Newmyer

Since my first SEEC, I’ve written four math education books, given dozens of presentations and workshops inspiring math and science educators and this year, I am serving as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow in the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program at the National Science Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia. SEEC is life changing for both students and teachers.

Why space science in education? Let me count the ways by Neme Alperstein

Neme Alperstein is a recently retired NYC public school teacher who taught fifth grade, and in the early days, fourth grade, for more than 28 years. She is currently a mentor for the Teaching With Primary Sources Teachers Network for the Library of Congress and received NASA’s first Excellence in Teaching Award.

Why space science in education? Let me count the ways…research, medicine, exploring new frontiers, encountering the unimaginable with wonder and just the sheer excitement of what it brings to us here on Earth.

SEEC provided the venue to meet other like-minded educators along with the people who have launched missions to new frontiers, including Dr. Alan Stern whose exploration of Pluto by the New Horizons Project was just one of the inspirational speakers whose story was a “can do” in the face of incredible odds. By the way, the mission arrived exactly on time (Dr. Stern says :19 seconds late which beats any airplane arrival time I have experienced) and to its exact spot where it took high-resolution photographs to transmit to Earth.

Neme Alperstein has attended 17 of the last 18 Space Exploration Educators Conferences. Photo courtesy of Neme Alperstein

Meetings such as SEEC are so important to support science educators who stay connected throughout the year in the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and South Africa, to name just a few countries well represented. The workshops offered lesson plans and materials via NASA’s education resources for teachers to bring back to the classroom, like NASA STEM Engagement Programs and Projects which offer an enormous range of possibilities for both students and teachers and the professional research community. There’s the NASA Kids’ Club site, and of course, the Peanuts (yes, those Peanuts!) Worldwide curriculum for elementary education. The NASA site is huge but so are the resources to address every level of learning. And it’s free.

Long-time friends and space science colleagues Neme Alperstein and Pam Leestma. Photo courtesy of Pam Leestma

How the Japanese Space Agency inspired my teaching by Pam Leestma

Pam Leestma has taught in Christian elementary schools in California for 43 years. She received the NASA Excellence in Teaching Award and the National American Stars of Teaching Award.

Pamela Leestma and Neme Alperstein with members of JAXA, the Japanese space agency. Photo courtesy of Pamela Leestma

I attended SEEC at Johnson Space Center in Houston for the 17th year this past February with my friend and educator, Neme Alperstein (see post above). Neme lives in New York and I live in California. We have collaborated using NASA resources with our students for 20 years!

At last year’s conference, we attended one of the workshops given by the JAXA (Japanese Space Agency) education team. The JAXA presentation was about the long truss of the International Space Station (ISS) and how it is built using triangular shapes. With the use of straws and tape, the teachers asked to create structures discovering the strength of triangles. When I returned to school, I used this lesson with my second graders. My classroom became filled with excitement as students built and tested their structures with heavy books and objects. I could already see future engineers in my class.

Schoolchildren with their space education projects standing next to a laptop with NASA technology. Photo courtesy of Pamela Leestma

I wanted to share our “mission accomplished” success with the JAXA education team and was able to connect with one of their team members in Japan. They were excited and even shared in their educational newsletter the picture I sent of one of my students. This is how we reach across borders and celebrate international space education. I always say, “Ignite the spark when they are young.” Space exploration will be the hope for our future, giving opportunities to work peacefully together, finding new ways to explore and improving our life here on Earth.

On to Mars by Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds is the STEAM Integration Specialist/IKS Highlander Flight Director at Harrison Middle School in Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pittsburgh, Penn.

A visit to the HERA Lab at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Photo courtesy of Debbie Reynolds

People often talk about one defining moment that can cause a shift in the course of their lives moving forward. That happened to me three years ago when I answered a phone call from my sister inviting me to come to a teacher conference at Space Center Houston. She needed some professional development hours for her job, and she thought as a science teacher, I might enjoy it.

Imagine walking into an entire building filled with people who share the same passion and collectively have so much knowledge that it practically becomes overwhelming. That is how I felt during my first conference. It was incredible and moving, and I still feel the same way after attending my third SEEC this past February. I love learning from and teaching with other educators. This conference has created my strongest networks and teams of collaboration. I have made some of my best friends and feel like I have found my tribe. The conference has also opened many other opportunities for me. I am not the same educator who I was three years ago.

My friends and family ask me why we are all so passionate about space, which is an easy question to answer. We have only touched the tip of what is out there. Space is that final frontier that unites us all and signifies the collective goal of our country and partner agencies to explore what lies beyond. We are in an exciting time of space exploration with our initiatives to return to the moon and then on to Mars.

Debbie Reynolds presenting at STEM Camp in China this last summer. Photo courtesy of Debbie Reynolds

As much as I would love to be a lunar settler…  by Tara Oakes

Tara Oakes is an astronomy educator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a certified interpretive guide at the National Association for Interpretation and a facilitator at Climate Reality Corps. She is a wildlife teacher ambassador at Arizona Game and Fish and a master watershed steward at the University of Arizona.

As an informal museum educator, my role is to share information by engaging the public and to get them emotionally invested and excited about everything from physical earth science to Pluto to emerging technologies on the International Space Station. My overall enthusiasm is key to engaging all ages–from 3 to 83-years-old– regarding our place in the solar system and our connections to space exploration. Opportunities like SEEC allow educators from all over the world to come together to share their passion for the space sciences and education to learn from each other and to increase our abilities to inspire.  

Tara Oakes adding a DNA sample to gel for sequencing during SEEC in Houston, Texas. Photo courtesy of Tara Oakes

As much as I would love to be a lunar settler or a Mars explorer, the probability is not likely. However, the future astronauts who will be the first people to walk on the Martian surface are in classrooms around the world right now. It is the responsibility–and privilege–of educators to encourage and outfit our students with the tools they need to enable humans to make those steps into the great unknown. That’s why we do this–the promise and hope of inspiration.

If you would like to contribute an “Educator Voice” piece, please send your idea to Vic Pasquantonio at For teaching resources in all subjects on Election 2020, sign up here and use the hashtag #SuperCivics2020. Sign up here for short NewsHour education story highlights.