This year, Montana took a leap toward bringing the Next Generation Science Standards to the state’s K-12 teachers by kicking off its first state science teachers conference. This pilot meeting brought together more than 100 of the state’s top educators, who shared best practices with the teaching community. One of these experts was Natalia Kolnik, a native of Bozeman, Montana, who leads education programs at the Children’s Museum of Bozeman. Her program stood out among attendees (including us) not just because her programs involved designing missions to Mars, but also because of her commitment to making connections with scientists in the area. We caught up with Kolnik to learn more about how, with the help of local companies – including some that have produced components for JPL missions – she turned a JPL lesson into an exploration of careers in STEM.

Mars lesson graphics

Mission to Mars Unit

In this 19-lesson, standards-aligned unit, students learn about Mars, design a mission to explore the planet, build and test model spacecraft and components, and engage in scientific exploration.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your teaching background.

I am the director of education at the Children’s Museum of Bozeman and its STEAMlab in Bozeman, Montana. I’ve been the director there for six months, so I teach various lessons in a couple different programs for students ages 6 through 12.

I was born and raised in Bozeman and earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and fine arts from the University of Montana, Missoula. I also have a master’s in education from the University of Oxford.

I’ve been teaching formal education classes to different grade levels for the last 13 years in various places around the world, including South Korea and Kosovo.

What unique challenges do you face engaging or addressing the needs of your students?

Teaching at the Children’s Museum is wonderful and challenging for the same reason: the diversity of the students. It’s like an educational casserole. Our STEAMlab programs are primarily filled with 6- to 12-year-old students who come to us from different school districts and different towns in Montana – or even from different states and countries. During the school year, they learn in public, private and home-school settings. Since the students come with such a variety of educational backgrounds and are a variety of ages, having them all together in a program, like a summer camp, can be challenging.

However, bringing various age groups together allows students of the same age to not feel left out if one of their age peers already knows the material, since it is likely that several others in the room have not encountered it either. Also, since our activities are hands-on, interactive and incorporate a high-tech element, even if students know the concepts and have done the project or activity before, they are still excited to do it again and help others.

Two kids explore the STEAMlab at the Children's Museum of Bozeman

Two kids explore the STEAMlab at the Children's Museum of Bozeman. | Image courtesy: Children's Museum of Bozeman + Expand image

It can also be tough to work with so many new students, rather than to teach in a classroom setting, in which you’ve had months to develop relationships with the students and establish a classroom rhythm, so students know what is expected. On the other hand, because we run short programs – one day to one week – we have the luxury of flexibility and of letting the content breath. We allow students to take that extra time for exploration, reflection and redesign that might not be possible in a regular classroom setting or time frame.

What NASA/JPL Education lessons have you been using with your students?

JPL has such a wealth of resources. It is so easy to incorporate them into all kinds of STEAMlab programs. For instance, we were able to design and offer a summer camp about Mars in large part because of all of the amazing, up-to-date information available on JPL’s website about Mars missions, the planet and all the new discoveries occurring on a daily basis. Activities such as Imagine Mars allowed students to plan a trip to Mars that would allow them to arrive safely and potentially build a habitat. As part of that lesson, we had the students extend their mission by creating a board game capturing the difficulties that could arise, despite even the best planning.

How did you modify the NASA/JPL Education lessons you used to best serve your specific students?

Being so far from a NASA site means we need to be creative to find connections between our community and careers in science. The support of our local business community is an incredible resource for us to build that bridge. We have one such partnership with the Montana Photonics Industry Alliance, or MPIA. Since the Curiosity Mars rover has laser diodes made by Quantel, a company right here in Bozeman that’s part of MPIA, we were able to help students connect the local with the supra-global.

Students listen to a presentation about Photonics

Student listen to a presentation about Photonics. | Image courtesy: Children's Museum of Bozeman + Expand image

This past semester, volunteers from these photonic companies have been meeting at the museum, brainstorming, planning, designing, redesigning and creating a spectroscope activity to use as one of the museum’s field-trip programs. We used the museum’s Full STEM Ahead summer camp as a pilot test of the activity. The MPIA volunteers found light sources they work with in their jobs (that could be safely viewed by students) to demonstrate the variety of light spectra all around us. Meanwhile, I used the STEAMlab’s 3D printers to print all the end caps for the students’ spectroscopes, which are small devices capable of separating wavelengths of light into individual colors.

We divided students into two age groups to observe how they might interact differently with the activity. For example, while one of the MPIA volunteers talked with half of the students about the photonics industry, ways in which photonic technology is used, and related career pathways in Bozeman, other volunteers led the rest of the students in using and understanding their spectroscopes, observing different lights and colors with their new tools.

How did the activity help you meet your objectives? How did students react to the lesson?

The goal for the STEAMlab is to foster an engaging, fun high-tech space in the museum where students ages 7 and older can be a part of a community of other young tech explorers, inventors and tinkerers. It’s a place to try out all kinds of ideas to fix a problem or build something new, all while reflecting and talking out the design and its challenges with friends and adult mentors nearby. And if something doesn’t work the way they intended, which happens a lot, then they’re encouraged to go ahead and try it again.

I gathered feedback about the spectroscopy activities by asking students a few questions and letting them write and/or draw their answers on sticky notes, with each color representing a different question. Their responses varied depending on age but were overwhelmingly positive. All of the students were able to respond with something they remembered learning that was new to them. And their suggestions were primarily about wanting more time to decorate and experiment with their spectroscopes and wanting to talk to more people who work with lasers.

I heard back from the parents of our student mentors about how their children – who had been a part of the activity as helpers – had come home talking all about lasers, how they now want to pursue a career in photonics and now they point out photonics companies that they drive past every day.


Have a great idea for implementing NASA research in your class or looking to bring NASA science into your classroom? The Educator Professional Development Collaborative, or EPDC, can help. The EPDC at JPL serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact JPL education specialist Brandon Rodriguez at brandon.rodriguez@jpl.nasa.gov. Note: Due to the popularity of EPDC programs, JPL may not be able to fulfill all requests.

Outside the Southern California area? The EPDC operates in all 50 states. Find an EPDC specialist near you.

The EPDC is managed by Texas State University as part of the NASA Office of Education. A free service for K-12 educators nationwide, the EPDC connects educators with the classroom tools and resources they need to foster students’ passion for careers in STEM and produce the next generation of scientists and engineers.

TAGS: K-12 Education, Informal Education

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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Screen grab of the NASA Museum Alliance "Events Near Me" map

You’ve probably heard about some of the fascinating missions and science happening at NASA, but wouldn’t it be great if you could see it in person? You can!

Every day, hundreds of museums, planetariums, observatories, libraries and other institutions participating in NASA’s Museum Alliance offer exhibits, planetarium shows and events featuring NASA science, technology and engineering. As the school year comes to a close, you can keep students – and learners of all ages – engaged by visiting your local informal education institutions. So make May the month you plan your next museum adventure and support organizations that bring the inspiration of NASA to you! Not sure where to start? Use the Museum Alliance's "Map of Members" to find destinations near you or explore the dynamic “Events Near Me” map, which lets you search by date to find the latest offerings.

For example, this month you could check out the new exhibits Out of this World: A Space Adventure at The Living Arts & Science Center in Lexington, Kentucky, or the Discover NASA traveling exhibition at the Auburn Public Library in Maine. You could experience “Intergalactic: A Space Odyssey” in the digital dome theater of Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Or, also this month, join the fun in California at the San Diego Air & Space Museum’s Space Day 2016, or sign up for the New Mexico Museum of Space History’s Rocketeer Academy summer camps.

Every year, more visits are made to U.S. museums – more than 850 million – than to all major sporting events and theme parks combined. Americans love their museums - get out there and see why!

At a museum, science center, library, camp or other informal education institution? Learn how you can join the more than 700 organizations participating in NASA’s Museum Alliance, here.

TAGS: International Museum Day, Museums, Events, NASA, JPL, STEM, Informal Education,

  • Amelia Chapman
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On March 12, the Smithsonian Institution will sponsor a special edition of Museum Day Live, an annual nationwide event designed to get people into their local museums, science centers and other cultural institutions. Taking place during Women’s History Month, the event is meant for all visitors but is specially themed toward inspiring the nation’s girls. Participating institutions will offer free admission for the day.

NASA plans to have strong participation through its Museum Alliance, a community of not just museums, but also planetariums, science centers, libraries, parks, observatories and other youth-serving STEM organizations.

For a list of the more than 350 participating institutions and to get your free tickets, visit the event website.

To learn more about getting your museum involved, contact Amelia.J.Chapman@jpl.nasa.gov.

Also, check out these tips for Engaging Girls in STEM, including ways the public can connect with NASA!

TAGS: Museum Day Live, Museum Alliance, Informal Education

  • Amelia Chapman
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People watching a 3D movie

Quick! What do you think when you hear “Education”?

If you’re like many people, you thought “School.” But of course people are always learning, no matter their age and regardless of whether they’re being graded. All that out-of-school, life-long learning is the reason for the term “informal education.”

Since 2002, JPL’s Informal Education group has run NASA’s Museum Alliance, providing museums and other informal education institutions with access to NASA staff, resources and professional development.

More than 700 organizations around the world – not just museums, but also planetariums, science centers, libraries, parks, observatories, camps, nature centers, and youth-serving organizations – are Museum Alliance members. They in turn share those NASA resources with their own audiences, through exhibitions and programming.

Last summer’s historic flyby of Pluto illustrates the impact of this approach. Museum Alliance members were kept up to date on the mission and image-release timeline, received New Horizons giveaways for their visitors, were able to speak directly with mission scientists, received training on related hands-on activities, and were given all the latest links, social media resources and downloadable graphics.

Numerically, these Museum Alliance organizations put on almost 2,000 Pluto-focused events in 36 states and eight countries. But more important, they were able to use this teachable moment to serve their audiences – diverse audiences who came with a broad range of experiences and interests.

They helped people learn when no one “had to” learn anything – and not just about Pluto. Every day, Museum Alliance members build on the intrinsically inspiring work of NASA in order to encourage people’s natural drive to know more, a drive that is itself at the heart of NASA’s mission.

> Visit the Museum Alliance website to learn more about the program and its members.

TAGS: Museum Alliance, Informal Education

  • Amelia Chapman
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Priscilla Strain

David Falk

Dan Malerbo

Nancy Tashima

Jack Dunn

April Whitt

It was 2003, just a year before NASA's Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were set to land on the Red Planet in a feat of engineering ingenuity rarely seen on the third planet from the sun - let alone the fourth -- and there was a problem on the horizon. Museums, planetariums and science centers, the very organizations that would inevitably become local experts for the much-anticipated landings, were severely lacking access to NASA's resources.

"A year before the landings, we started a conversation with about 12 museums and planetariums around the country," said Anita Sohus, who now leads the brainchild of that conversation, the Museum Alliance, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We talked about what kinds of resources they would like and by the end of November 2003 we had 130 organizations sign up [for the Museum Alliance] immediately."

When the landings rolled around, many of the Museum Alliance partners, who had been given unique access to mission personnel as well as visualizations and materials, held their doors open through the night -- some in blizzard conditions -- and still had overflow crowds to witness the landings. "It was clear we were on to something big," said Sohus.

Nine years later on a Thursday afternoon, 65 people log in to one of the Museum Alliance's teleconferences. Susana E. Deustua, an associate scientist on the Instruments Division team at the Space Telescope Science Institute is describing how NASA's Hubble Space Telescope will use the moon as a mirror to observe the upcoming transit of Venus, an event that won't take place again for another 105 years. The telecon inspires a string of questions and curiosities, which will later be shared with the thousands of visitors, students, teachers and life-long learners who visit one of the more than 500 organizations currently participating in the Museum Alliance.

Today, the Museum Alliance continues to play an important and essential role, connecting its partners with the missions and resources they need most and turning those connections into new ways to engage the public. A quick look at the Museum Alliance website, where partners list hundreds of NASA-related events at their various centers, speaks not only to the Alliance's incredible reach, but also the value it provides.

"When we're able to talk to [the scientists doing research on these missions] directly, it makes a big difference in terms of sharing that information with our audience. It's priceless," said Shawn Laatsch, a planetarium manager at the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii who joined the Museum Alliance in 2003 when he was managing a planetarium in Kentucky. "Every planetarium show we do has a live segment, so when there are new discoveries, we try to incorporate them into the show."

For Greg Andrews, the astronomy program leader at Sci-Port Louisiana's Science Center, who says his background in physics hadn't prepared him for the spotlight of public presentations, the telecons are a lesson in translation. "Not everybody thinks the way I do," he said. "The telecons have a great way of breaking down the information so you can understand it and relay it to others."

In addition to the telecons, which cover topics as diverse as distant star formation and NASA's newest visualization programs and bring in dozens of participants each session, the Museum Alliance provides organizations with unique resources and materials that alone can encourage thousands of visits.

"The Museum Alliance is a good place for resources," said Mal Cameron, an education specialist at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, N.H., which in 2005 was one of only two places in New England with large-scale images from the Hubble Space Telescope on display - a mural donated by the Space Telescope Science Institute. "It's been great for getting people to come see us. We're always looking for ways we can advance what we do as a science center."

David Falk, a full-time instructor of astronomy and the planetarium director at Los Angeles Valley College, says the resources offered by the Museum Alliance, which over the years have included educational posters and instructional DVDs, bring in visitors to the planetarium and students to the college's science programs. "We're always trying to get people to attend Los Angeles Valley College, and the Museum Alliance has become a big part of that," he said. "Getting pictures from the Mars missions and others is like gold."

And this constant stream of resources and connections is turning Museum Alliance partners into experts in their own right, who can then use their insights to engage and inspire others.

"I love those teaching moments when kids come up to you with questions to answer and a lot of it I know" said Cameron. "Much of what I've learned is from the Museum Alliance."

With more exciting mission events and discoveries always just around the corner, the future looks bright for the Museum Alliance as it launches into its second decade. "We add value because we give members a direct pipeline to information from NASA and insight directly from mission experts," said Sohus.

To learn more about the Museum Alliance and how museum professionals can get involved, visit http://informal.jpl.nasa.gov/museum/index.cfm.

Visit http://informal.jpl.nasa.gov/museum/Visiting to find a listing of Museum Alliance organizations near you.

TAGS: Museum Alliance, Programs, Informal Education,

  • Kim Orr
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In summer 2011, more than 5,000 students and 600 educators took part in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Summer of Innovation program.

TAGS: Summer of Innovation, Educators, Informal Education

  • NASA/JPL Edu
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