Collage of images showing Toluca Lake Elementary's fifth-grade teachers and students working on projects

Over the past four years in the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I have had the good fortune to work with amazing educators and their students across Southern California. While it's not always possible to visit schools in person, there are sometimes projects and curricula so unique that a visit is too hard to pass up. That was the case when the fifth-grade staff at Toluca Lake Elementary School in Los Angeles reached out to me. This team of teachers has long been implementing exciting science activities and programs not just for their students, but also for parents and the community at large. The team – made up of Dennis Hagensmith, Rick Lee and Hamilton Wyatt – shared some of their background with us, as well as tips for getting young students excited about science in and out of the classroom.

Tell us about your background. How long have you been teaching?

Hagensmith: I've been teaching for 32 years total, with 29 of them at Toluca Lake Elementary. I began my teaching career in a split fourth- and fifth-grade classroom and moved to sixth grade for several years. But I have spent most of my career working with fifth graders.

Lee: This is my seventh year teaching and my fourth year teaching fifth grade. I have also taught kindergarten and second grade. Although there are aspects of teaching primary grades that I miss, fifth grade is my favorite of the three because the standards students are working toward are so comprehensive. It keeps me interested and excited about learning along with my students.

Wyatt: I have taught for almost three years. Before that, I was a teacher's assistant and instructional aid for three years.

How do you use resources from NASA in the classroom?

Hagensmith: I have used NASA resources to create hands-on lessons measuring the relative size of our solar system, to prepare a salad demonstrating the Sun's mass, to make bracelets with colored beads matching the chemical composition of the cosmos and assemble handmade telescopes.

Lee: Dennis and I recently attended an oceanography workshop put on by JPL that involved learning from teachers and researchers who had just completed cruises aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. We were inspired to include similar activities leading up to and during an already-planned after-school screening of [the Netflix documentary] "Chasing Coral." The lesson complements other JPL lessons related to sea-level rise and global climate change.

Rodriguez, Lee and Hagensmith stand on a concrete doc with a ship in the water behind them

JPL's Educator Professional Development Coordinator Brandon Rodriguez stands with Lee and Hagensmith during a September 2019 educator workshop that connected participants with researchers aboard the Nautilus research vessel for a talk on oceanography. Image Courtesy: Brandon Rodriguez | + Expand image

Wyatt: Many of the JPL resources aren't just about science – they are generally thought-provoking activities. I use many of the activities pertaining to art because my students this year are artistically talented and curious.

How do you address the specific needs of your students and get the community involved in their education?

Hagensmith: Teaching in a low-income area, it is imperative that we find ways to make our families feel welcome and encourage academic excellence. Our goal is to create a school culture in which all realize their potential and make the most of their education. To that goal, we host a variety of parent and community nights each year, including Night of the Arts, Family Science Night, Family Reading Night, family writing workshops and Family Pi Night. The most popular of all of these is our annual Family Astronomy Night and Star Party. The evening always kicks off with a presentation from a visiting scientist, then families participate in a number of hands-on workshops. The most popular activity is often the telescopes provided by the Burbank Sidewalk Astronomers taking aim at various celestial objects.

This idea for the family events came about back in 2010 when I took a class at JPL with scientist Bonnie Burrati. The class inspired me to take steps to enhance my science instruction. We became a NASA partner school and began utilizing lessons from the NASA-JPL Education website. As a result of these lessons, two of our students – Ali Freas and Caitline Molina – were awarded a trip to NASA's Johnson Space Center in 2012 to participate in the Student Science Symposium. That year, we also presented NASA's "Space School Musical" at our annual Night of the Arts. I began doing the star party sometime around that era. Originally, it was just parents from my class and one guest presenter. As the years went by, we were able to recruit more teachers to host workshops and get speakers from JPL and UCLA. Last year, we had nearly 200 guests at the star party.

Lee: I really try to maximize the impact of field trips. Students bring study guides and circulate through the tour, working as investigators searching for information and formulating their own conclusions about the topic we're exploring. This approach is useful for focusing student attention on key concepts at a wide range of locations. Recently, we visited the ecosystems and Space Shuttle Endeavour exhibits at the California Science Center, we've seen art at the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and we've built cultural understanding at Los Angeles Plaza and the California African American Museum.

Wyatt: Many students that come to me struggle with social-emotional skills and really need a jump-start on how to express themselves without feeling overwhelmed or picked on by other students. It is very important to me to begin by engaging with my students in a way that communicates that they can feel safe, comforted and empowered when they are in my class. All students have the ability to express themselves and still be strong scholars. I strive to help my students find that sweet spot in my classroom.

One thing teachers struggle with, especially in primary grades, is making science cross-curricular. How have you brought science into the everyday lesson?

Hagensmith: Part of my success as a teacher has come from letting students direct their own assessments. I believe students need to see that learning isn't done in isolation. Subjects are connected with one another and with real-world applications. Each activity is preceded by lessons providing a context for students' learning. For example, after reading a book, students may create a diorama, write a review for the school newspaper, dress as one of the characters and get interviewed by peers, make a presentation and so forth. This provides a vehicle for students to build upon their unique skills and interests.

Lee: I've found success especially with topics related to the environment. I completed the National Geographic Educator Certification program last year, and that experience made a huge impact on me personally and professionally. I highly recommend it to all educators. National Geographic resources, combined with those offered by NASA-JPL, are guaranteed to create highly engaging, cooperative learning opportunities for students across all disciplines.


Have a great idea for incorporating NASA research into your curriculum or looking to bring NASA science into the classroom? The Educator Professional Development Specialist at JPL can help. Contact Brandon Rodriguez at brandon.rodriguez@jpl.nasa.gov. Note: Due to the popularity of programs, JPL may not be able to fulfill all requests.

TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Resources, Lessons, Classroom, STEM, Professional Development

  • Brandon Rodriguez