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
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Mars Exploration Educator Workshop at JPL in Pasadena, California

You may already know about the online lessons and activities available from the Education Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (If not, check them out here.) But did you know that JPL and all NASA centers nationwide have an education specialist focused specifically on professional development for teachers – including how to use those online lessons in the classroom? It’s part of a program called the Educator Professional Development Collaborative, or EPDC, a free service for any K-12 classroom educator in the country.

During the 2016-2017 school year, the EPDC at JPL participated in more than 120 school events focusing on teacher professional development, including implementing Next Generation Science Standards, helping schools initiate science fairs and community events, and assisting with student presentations. That number includes more than 5,000 teachers and students who worked with the EPDC on initiatives designed to get NASA science and engineering into the hands of future space explorers.

As the EPDC coordinator for JPL, I schedule and help shape these events for schools and teacher preparation programs in Southern California, coordinating and consulting with educators to help them bring standards-aligned NASA STEM content into the classroom. My work and the ways in which I support educators can take many shapes. Teachers often ask me to visit during regularly scheduled professional development or early dismissal days. These represent the most common events, wherein schools choose topics or themes to focus on and the time is spent practicing hands-on activities for students. This year, teachers and schools have come up with new and especially creative formats, scheduling onsite tours and workshops at JPL for their teaching staff, or even having NASA scientists dial in to their classrooms to talk with students.

JPL's EPDC Coordinator, Brandon Rodriguez, leads an educator workshop

The EPDC helps educators bring NASA STEM content into the classroom through workshops, webinars and more. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One school in particular took its program to another level with the help of the EPDC at JPL by building a grade-wide, multi-week mission to Mars. For their annual cross-curricular project, teachers at the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media in Los Angeles were hoping to create a more expansive offering that incorporated the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS. I met with teachers over several days to suggest activities and strategies that would meet their goal of getting students engaged in space science across numerous subject areas.

Students were tasked to explore the history of space exploration and the pioneers who led the charge. Using NASA lessons like those found on the JPL Education website, the students built conceptual models of Mars missions, including calculating the budget associated with such a trek. They then constructed robotic rovers capable of traversing a simulated Martian surface and the tools needed to interact with the local environment.

But what really set the program apart was its focus on collaboration. The school thought beyond the content of the lesson itself, making NASA badges for each student and having them refer to each other as “doctor.” Students designed their own team name and logo. They also used Web-based apps to capture pictures and videos of their work during each class and posted them online, allowing groups to digitally follow the revisions and lessons learned by their classmates. As a year-end culminating event, students presented their work in front of their classmates, and I was fortunate to be in attendance to celebrate the hard work of the teachers and students.

Mars mission project at the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media in Los Angeles
Working with the EPDC at JPL, educators at the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media in Los Angeles designed a multi-week project that had students create a mission to Mars. The project included testing samples of "Martian soil" for signs of microbial life (top left) and creating a hydraulic arm to interact with a simulated Mars surface (top center). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In Chicago, Burley Elementary staff reached out to me via our distance learning program to revise an existing lesson for an elementary-level special education audience. Working together, the staff and I created a project using JPL’s NGSS-aligned Touchdown lesson to demonstrate the value of the engineering design process, revision and collaboration.

Students at Burley Elementary School in Chicago work on JPL's Touchdown lesson

Students at Burley Elementry in Chicago design lunar landers as part of JPL's NGSS-aligned Touchdown lesson. Burley Elementary teachers worked with the EPDC at JPL to modify the lesson for their students. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At the onset of the project, students were tasked to develop a spacecraft capable of landing astronauts safely on a distant planet. Each day concluded with students testing their designs and documenting the changes they made. Again, student groups captured their revisions digitally, praising others and crediting them for ideas that influenced their work. As a result, student groups learned the value of collaboration over competition.

From the educator’s point of view, the evolution of students’ designs also provided a narrative for assessment: Each student group had three designs constructed along with written and recorded diaries discussing the changes they made. The rubric included analysis of their own trials as well as the peer designs that shaped their future trials, creating in-depth student storyboards.

In both of these cases, the educators’ creativity, expertise and interest in creating novel opportunities for professional development and student engagement helped elevate the quality of the EPDC’s offerings and expand the scope of JPL’s STEM lessons. I’ve since been able to incorporate the ideas and strategies created during these projects into other workshops and lessons, sharing them with an even wider group of educators and classrooms. While not every collaboration between the EPDC and educators need be multi-day endeavors, even when done on a small scale, they can have a big impact.

Looking to bring NASA science into your classroom or need help customizing lessons for your students and staff? 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. To find an EPDC specialist near you, see https://www.txstate-epdc.net/nasa-centers/.

The Educator Professional Development Collaborative (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: Professional Development, Workshops, Teachers, Educators, STEM, Science, Engineering, EPDC

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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Last week, 50 university students studying to become K-12 science, technology, engineering and math teachers attended an educator institute at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of the agency's Minority University Research and Education Project, or MUREP. The institute is designed to provide pre-service teachers from minority-serving institutions with NASA resources and connections. 

During the week, participants met with science and mission team leaders to discuss topics including construction of the Mars rover Curiosity, techniques used to discover planets outside our solar system, and future plans to study Jupiter's moon Europa. They also had the opportunity to tour facilities such as the Mars Yard, where Mars mission engineers test rover maneuvers, and mission control, the national historic landmark where teams monitor the nail-biting landings of such rovers.

JPL education specialists walked participants through hands-on lessons and activities from the JPL Education website and demonstrated how the standards-based activities could be used in the classroom. Among the activities, participants took on a number of engineering design challenges, constructing rovers and planetary landers, and did inquiry-based planning to develop solutions for climate and water issues on Earth.

See a collection of photos and videos from the week in the highlight reel above and using the hashtag #NASAMEI2016 on Twitter.

To learn more about the MUREP educator institute, visit the NASA Educator Professional Development Collaborative website

More information about NASA's Minority Research and Education Project and related programs, can be found, here.

TAGS: Educator Institute, MUREP, MEI, Pre-service teachers, Professional Development

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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