Blogs  |  7.8.2017

Vassalboro teacher brings astronaut lessons back to the classroom

Challenger Center

Last October, Vassalboro teacher Breanne Desmond took her sixth-grade students on a trip to the Challenger Learning Center in Bangor. They took part in simulated missions and jobs, such as coding, communications, and photography.

“I just thought it was so cool that they got to do these shuttle missions,” said Desmond, 36, who has worked for the Vassalboro Community School for one year.

So she decided to apply for a similar adult opportunity.

Applications to the Honeywell Educators at Space Academy were due in November, so Desmond acted quickly to submit her information. Math and science teachers who work with students age 10 through 14 are eligible for the program, which provides professional development and simulated astronaut training for teachers.

The week of Jan. 9, she remembers, they started to notify winners, so she was constantly checking her email.

Desmond was one of more than 200 teachers from 33 countries and 45 states selected for the one-week program.

Honeywell, which sponsors the program, paid for the tuition, airfare and dormitory housing at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

“In a time where professional development opportunities are really limited, it just was that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Desmond said. “Not only did I get to live some of these lessons I would give to my students, I got access to a ton of resources.”

Desmond traveled in mid-June to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Hunstville, which is a comprehensive space flight museum that includes a rocket park, Spacedome Theater and NASA’s Educator Resource Center.

“I got to pretend that I was 12 again,” she said.

Desmond designed, built and launched rockets, took part in two simulated space missions to Mars and the International Space Station, and participated in simulated training such as the multi-axis space test inertia facility that spins astronauts around. For her team’s engineering work, she won the Commander’s Cup.

She also learned leadership and classroom techniques and received a number of resources that she can download and use in her lessons.

And she met colleagues from all over the world. One of Desmond’s teammates from Brazil is setting up a pen pal system.

The program allowed the teachers a chance to “train like astronauts do” for 45 hours. But it also helped them see things from a different perspective, she said.

For example, the teachers had to do both a zipline and a helo dunker activity, in which teams are strapped into the body of a helicopter and plunged into a pool. Neither was a comfortable experience, Desmond said.

“It put us in the kids’ shoes by asking us to do something we weren’t comfortable with,” she said, so they gained insight into how students may feel when they’re asked to do difficult and unfamiliar things. “It was overcoming more mental blocks.”

Now, Desmond plans to incorporate some of the videos, slide-show presentations and articles she was given into her classroom, as well as some of the projects she took part in.

She’s started re-creating some of the materials they used for team building and communication activities as well, like a memory game made from a large tarp and duct tape. She hopes to break down the barrier that students often put up for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects before they even try them.

Desmond often hears students say they “hate” science or they’re not good at math, but she hopes to reach them before they get to that mindset with fun projects, like Sphero – a coding game Desmond played while in Alabama. The participants had to use code and a smartphone to control a robot and navigate it around the face of Mars, she said.

But bringing opportunities like that into the classroom will take money. She plans on applying for grants and looking for free activities that could spark her students’ interests in science, like Orion’s Quest missions, which let students take part in space-based research.

Opening up access to these experiences is something Desmond is now passionate about. Growing up in Vassalboro, she said she “never would’ve thought of these careers” in science.

She also plans to continue the October trips to Bangor for sixth-graders to visit the Challenger Learning Center.

Honeywell, in partnership with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, created the scholarship program in 2004 to help educate the next generation of workers.

Since then, the academy has graduated 2,776 educators from 62 countries and all 50 U.S. states, reaching a total of 3 million children.

“Technology is changing exponentially. Things we once held as impossibilities are reality – we are on our journey to Mars,” said Deborah Barnhart, CEO and executive director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. “Educating the next generation of leaders and learners is key to global success.”

“The Honeywell Educators at Space Academy program unites teachers with exciting tools and methods to change the lives of students around the globe.”

Source: Portland Press Herald