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Sister Clarice Lolich

Sister Clarice Lolich A Sister's Passion for Science Education

For those who ponder the convergence of science and religion, there is Sister Clarice Lolich, a Dominican nun in the Community of the Holy Spirit, a space-science education specialist, and a retired NASA consultant.


Since 1989 Lolich has been using her time one week a month at JPL, offering the special "Sister Clarice" tours of the Lab to school children. For 11 years she has led groups of local elementary school kids on a space odyssey tour of the Lab. Recently, Lolich announced that she is retiring from her JPL duties to be closer to her San Mateo home, where she will work on a new outreach and education program idea at the nearby NASA Ames Research Center.

On this day, Lolich is in JPL's 167 Café, talking to a room full of fourth-graders. She is telling them all about the space shuttle and its components. She has them repeat after her that the space shuttle "takes off like a rocket, travels like a spaceship, and lands like an airplane." The children are mesmerized by her energy and her simple explanations. Next, she hands out graph paper and has the children follow simple instructions on placing X's and O's in designated squares. At the end of the experiment, every fourth-grader has a picture of the orbiter, complete with external tank and booster rockets. Next stop: the Space Flight Operations Facility, where they will find out about how the Deep Space Network operates and why it is so important.

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Sister Clarice with Student studying solar system
Sister Clarice teaches a JPL visitor.
Born in San Francisco, Lolich entered the convent of the Dominican Sisters at Mission San Jose, has two master's degrees and a doctorate in humanistic psychology. She was called "the quintessential post-Vatican II nun" by a journalist referring to the changes in the Catholic church brought about in the late 1960s, after Pope John's modernization efforts. Soon after the pope's announcement, differences of perspective developed in her community. Lolich was one of 14 Sisters who formed a new sisterly order, the Community of the Holy Spirit, in 1970.

"The new sisterly order meant that we had to find jobs," she said. "I started in the science business many years ago as a science teacher in the elementary and secondary schools with my Dominican community, and building on that experience, I became director of education for the California Museum of Science and Industry, now named California Science Center." In short order, she was organizing educational tours to Florida to see the launches of Apollo and Skylab missions. Her passion for education—particularly science and the study of space—took her all over the country as part of NASA's effort to disseminate the results of its space exploration as widely as possible. NASA provided Lolich with a van, and she drove around the country visiting various school districts as part of the Urban Community Enrichment Program. Lolich was bringing the excitement and wonder of space exploration to inner-city schools. All the while, Lolich says that she has tried to relate the spiritual into everything she teaches, because "one of the definitions of prayer is the lifting up of mind and spirit. That is the reason for my being here."

In her lifetime of teaching science, and seeking to bring the wonder and opportunity of learning to people in various walks of life, Lolich has traveled the world and earned many awards. She has been named Aerospace Education's Teacher Educator of the Year by the American Society for Aerospace Education; earned the Special Recognition Award from NASA's Urban Community Enrichment Program; was given the Aviation Educator of the Year Award by the California Association of Aeronautics Educators; and received NASA's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Aerospace Education Services Program. Last but not least, the Commonwealth of Kentucky commissioned her Honorable Kentucky Colonel. She has traveled to war-torn Bosnia and helped bring some sanity to children not able to go to school, living in refugee camps. She has been to Antarctica, and is looking forward to her trip in July to Tex Mallaqia, in Puebla, Mexico, where she will teach 60 children for two weeks about planets, math and science. She says the most important part of her teaching is "the hands-on experiences."

Sister Clarice skydiving
Sister Clarice skydiving.
The breadth of Lolich's experiences indicates that she loves to try new things. For her 75th birthday she went bungee jumping, and on her 80th birthday she jumped out of an airplane. Lolich is not deterred by her age; in fact her retirement is part-time. "I intend to continue my work with NASA Ames, bringing educational outreach programs to people who cannot visit a NASA center, such as retirement-home residents, residential facilities for the handicapped, jails and homes for juvenile offenders. I will also assist in training docents at NASA Ames," she said. She emphasizes that bilingual education students need a specific outreach effort directed specifically for them. "I want people to recognize that life is full of opportunities and that there are many options in life." Lolich does not fully discount the possibility of returning to JPL, perhaps in a limited capacity.

Back at JPL's Space Flight Operations Facility, Lolich motions to a 10-year-old boy swiveling impatiently in a squeaky chair. "Come, stand here," she says, and places him next to the giant poster of the planets. "You are the Cassini spacecraft. You are sending information you have gathered about Jupiter to the Deep Space Network on Earth." The boy motions with his hands as if handing over imaginary packages into the darkened room. Sister Clarice then picks three girls, and positions them some feet away, standing back-to-back, with elbows interlocked. "You are Spain, you are Australia and you are California," she says, touching each girl on top of her head. "Now spin slowly, and call out your name when you pass by the spacecraft." The girls wobble along, and call out "Spain … Australia … California … Spain …" "Good," she says. She motions to another boy. "Come stand here. You are JPL, and you are receiving the information from the three satellite dishes and making it useful for everyone to learn what the Cassini spacecraft has learned about Jupiter." The children act out their parts, and suddenly a room full of fourth-graders understands the Deep Space Network and its importance.

At the end of the tour the children shout a resounding "Thank you!" to Lolich— undoubtedly a refrain of the thousands who have visited the Lab in years past and have enjoyed the wonders of science and space exploration because of her passion and dedication.

June 22, 2001

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