Blogs  |  12.12.2023

A Double Launch Experience for Our Trailblazing STEM Educators

During the AIAA Awards Gala this past spring, Challenger Center and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) celebrated the three winners of the 2023 Trailblazing STEM Educator Award—Aymette Medina, Caroline Little, and Taylor Whisenant. In addition to receiving cash awards and free access to Challenger Center’s STEM education programs, this year’s prize package included an opportunity for all awardees to join Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s nonprofit, at a space launch experience.

Fast forward several months … our Club for the Future partners invited the awardees, as well as representatives from Challenger Center and AIAA, to Kennedy Space Center for a full three-day experience. While Taylor unfortunately couldn’t make the trip, 2022 Awardee Kellie Taylor was able to join us. We were headed to Florida and one thing was certain … the teachers were just as excited for their own experience as they were to bring that experience back to their students in the classroom.

Day 1: Touring Blue Origin and Watching a Night Launch

Upon arrival, we were whisked away to the Blue Origin Orbital Launch site for a tour of the facilities where we learned about the different stages of the rocket-building process and all of the careers that are associated with it.

When reflecting on the experience, Aymette said, “The activities I’m doing with my students are so interconnected to what I saw at Blue Origin. We have an engineering design class where students are building rockets from scratch. I’m teaching them about the parts of a rocket and the rocket assembly process . . . which I saw at Blue Origin! Now, I can better describe the rocket-building process to my students because I observed it for myself.”

Caroline added, “As a STEM educator, I’m constantly looking for different career paths that I can tell my students about as possibilities for their futures. The Blue Origin tour opened my eyes to so many more careers that I’m excited to share with them—even opportunities that don’t even exist yet!”

Later that night, we excitedly waited to watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 Starlink mission launch. But the initial launch time passed us by, then the 2nd launch time passed, then the 3rd … it was past midnight, and everyone was exhausted from a full day of travel and activities. Finally, Falcon 9 lit up the night sky, launching 22 satellites into low-Earth orbit at 1:36 a.m. Everyone’s adrenaline was pumping!

Caroline shared, “Not only was I able to show my students video from the launch once I returned home, but I could describe to them how the launch sounded and what it felt like. I could describe it in a way that made it feel like they were there too, bringing a whole new level of excitement to my classroom. There’s so much power in having an experience and then bringing that storytelling aspect back to your students.”

Day 2: Exploring Kennedy Space Center

Our second day was spent exploring Kennedy Space Center—discovering the stories of NASA’s space pioneers at the Heroes and Legends exhibit, celebrating the history of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, exploring the future of space travel at the Gateway exhibit, and engaging in conversation with former Astronaut Robert Thirsk.

Kellie shared, “I have a new respect and understanding of how space exploration is taking place now, compared to historically. After returning home, I immediately shared recordings and information about Kennedy Space Center and the launches with my students. The timing was perfect—it was great to see the launches followed by an annular eclipse to keep the excitement going in the classroom.”

Day 3: Touring Cape Canaveral and Watching a Daytime Launch

Our final day started at Kennedy Space Center’s Astronaut Training Experience where our educators traveled to Mars and trained like the next generation of space explorers. Then, we hopped into a van for a private tour around Cape Canaveral, including historic launch pad sites and the Apollo/Saturn V Center where we viewed our second (daytime) launch of the trip: The United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V launch.

Kellie shared, “It was such a sharp contrast to hear about the number of launches (70+) that have taken place from the Space Coast just this year, compared to sitting on the same bleachers from the Apollo era to watch the ULA launch. To witness a launch from such an iconic viewing site was amazing. The experience refueled my passion and is helping me bring back more energy and enthusiasm to my classroom.”

A Far-Reaching Impact

After the trip, each teacher expressed how excited they were to bring their experiences back to their students … as well as their fellow educators!

Aymette shared, “What’s cool about this experience, is that it wasn’t just a student or two who were excited to hear about it; coworkers were excitedly waiting for me to return and hear about the trip too! It’s not always about how we can inspire our kids, but how we can inspire our fellow teachers to try something new related to STEM in their classrooms. It’s important to try new things and not get stuck in our common lesson plans that we do year after year. It’s okay to teach to the standards, but we can also add something new, something that might encourage our kids to learn even more.”

Challenger Center is incredibly proud to partner with AIAA, Blue Origin, and Club for the Future, sharing in the goal of inspiring the next generation of explorers and innovators. Having the opportunity to attend not just one, but two space launches is truly special. A huge thank you to Blue Origin, Club for the Future, and Kennedy Space Center for their generous invitation, incredible hospitality, and, most importantly, lifelong memories.

2024 Trailblazing STEM Educator Award Nominations—Closing Soon

If you know a K-12 educator who goes above and beyond to inspire the next generation of explorers and innovators in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), nominate them for the 2024 Trailblazing STEM Educator Award. But hurry—applications close on December 15, 2023!