Blogs  |  12.19.2022

Opening Doors Through the Smithsonian’s Teacher Innovator Institute

Emily Apgar

Each year, the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum hosts the Teacher Innovator Institute (TII), where 30 educators from across the country participate in a two-year professional development program working with education and STEAM experts to explore the connection between informal STEAM education and authentic learning. Emily Apgar, a former teacher and now Senior Program Manager for Education at Challenger Center, was selected for this prestigious opportunity and completed her program this past summer.

We chatted with her about her experience . . . 

Why Did You Apply for the Teacher Innovator Institute?

As a classroom teacher in an under-resourced school, I was paying out of my own pocket for a lot of supplies, activities, and experiences that I was giving to my studentssomething every teacher experiences on some level. But it still didn’t feel like enough. 

I initially applied to the Smithsonian’s TII because I wanted to provide my students with more hands-on STEM experiences. I know the sort of engagement those opportunities produce is the driving force behind students’ long-term success; but at the time, I was limited in my ability to provide that on my own. The combination of both knowing the solution to the problem and being unable to offer it creates a very particular sense of disillusionment. It’s what creates burnout in educators. We know if we had the right tools, we could reach so many more students. So, I sought out the TII opportunity.

What Were Your Priorities Going Into the TII Program?

My cohort began in 2020. When the pandemic began, it was put on pause. Then, we transitioned to a virtual program in 2021. In the summer of 2022, we finally met in person for two weeks of learning. To say my cohort was thrilled to finally be together in person is an understatement! 

In the two years between when I was accepted into TII and when I was able to participate in person, I left the classroom to transition into my role at Challenger Center. My goals shifted. My participation wasn’t so much about getting direct resources for my classroom anymore; it became about growing my knowledge base as an educator in a non-student-facing role. I started asking a bigger-picture question: What does it mean to create equitable content for diverse learners in a non-classroom setting?

When I was teaching, my students suffered because they lacked resource equity. As I work to develop STEM educational resources in my current role, creating content that reflects my students back to themselves is my top priority. When students see themselves represented in engaging and meaningful experiences and content, it inspires them to continue learning in those STEM fields.

What Did You Find Most Beneficial as a TII Participant?

TII allowed me to hear directly from other high-quality educators about the needs of their diverse classrooms all over the country. Hearing about their challenges and how they work to overcome them was both inspiring and humbling. Much like my experiences while teaching, so few of them had access to the resources they needed, and so many used their own time, energy, and money to fill the gaps.

For me, the most significant benefit of TII is access to a more extensive network of educators who can be in the trenches together. Of course, access to funds and physical resources is wildly useful, but it’s exponentially more so when you’re surrounded by other professionals who are constantly providing innovative ideas and support. Teaching can be isolating and paralyzing when you feel like you have to solve every problem on your own. It’s monumentally less so when you know you can bounce ideas off other high-quality teachers, complete professional development with them, and learn directly from them.

Working with them reminded me why I chose the education field and why I want to continue to build my knowledge base and develop content that can help all educators. I may not be in a classroom anymore, but supporting teachers also means supporting students.

What’s Next for You as Your TII Experiences Come to an End?

Even after the program ends, TII continues to fund professional development opportunities for participants. Moving forward, I’m focusing on strengthening my space-science knowledge base by attending the Space Exploration Educators Conference at Space Center Houston and participating in other professional learning opportunities that directly relate to the work I’m doing at Challenger Center.

I’m also excited to continue working with my fellow TII cohort members as we learn, grow, and innovate together. Staying connected to teachers and their needs is at the heart of everything I do.

Apply for the 2023 TII Cohort

The application for the 2023 TII cohort is now open and closes on February 15, 2023. Accepted educators will be onsite in Washington, DC, from July 10-21, 2023, and July 8-19, 2024. Middle school (grades 5-8) STEM teachers who have an interest in expanding their practice to include informal education techniques are encouraged to apply!

To learn more and apply, visit the Smithsonian’s Teacher Innovator Institute webpage.