Long-term Engagement with NASA for Educator Learning Experiences

It is well known that Professional Development (PD) for educators is effective if it is long-term and not just a one-off event. Office of Education at NASA Goddard partners with institutions to meet their long-term needs for educator PD. This February, I had the opportunity to further this partnership with pre-service teachers at Marymount University and in-service teachers from Hopatcong school district in NJ.

NASA Goddard has been working with Marymount University for a number of years where students enrolled in Math and Science Methods courses participate in a PBL workshop where they are presented with a PBL scenario and then led through multiple NASA-unique hands-on activities based on NGSS standards. In this 3-hour workshop, I was excited to share more than hands-on activities with the students. Instead of diving right into the content, I made time to share the social, affective, and cultural components of STEM education and the role of educators in fostering these components of the learning environment. My experience as an engineer and educator who had worked on equity and access was well received by the students.

We started with an icebreaker activity that is popular in STEM role model training and something the participants can use with their students to challenge their conceptions about scientists and engineers. The participants were asked to draw their mental image of a NASA scientist and engineer.  Aside from their inner artist, what came out of this activity was lively discussion on the need to challenge the stereotypes associated with STEM careers and the need for teachers to be effective STEM role models.

Students’ portrayal of NASA scientist and engineer

The PBL scenario for the workshop was “NASA needs creative engineers and scientists to work on missions to send humans back to the moon, en route to Mars”.  In keeping with the scenario, we went through multiple activities from understanding our place in the universe, learning about the Moon from NASA missions, and engineering design challenges to develop the technology to land on moon’s surface and build a habitat on moon.

Much-like the real-world they learned that engineers don’t always create new technology, they also work on improving existing technology. They built straw rockets and tested the rocket’s performance for different variables to determine the best design for the rocket.

Students brainstorming design improvements for a straw rocket

They also experienced an open-ended engineering design challenge where they built a prototype for touchdown of the space capsule once it lands on the surface of the moon. At the end of the workshop students had a good idea about how NASA educational resources can be used in their classrooms for problem-based, hands-on, and inquiry-based learning. The university faculty member who coordinated the workshop planned on working with the students to incorporate NASA resources into lesson planning part of the curriculum.

Another event this month that continued the long-term partnership between NASA and a school district was a three-day annual professional development workshop that was delivered via web, also called webshop. The three-day webshop was split between elementary, middle, and high school teachers of Hopatcong school district in NJ. My colleague and I designed a full-day webshop for teachers on Sustainability with real-world examples from how NASA considers sustainability on its moon and mars exploration missions. Teachers received subject matter expertise from Scientists and Engineers who work on those missions, and training on educational resources related to sustainable exploration of moon and mars. We led activities on designing a board game that explored building a sustainable community on moon, engineering design challenge to build a solar oven and a solar thermos. The high-school teachers were also walked through an engineering challenge that included chemistry related to making air breathable for humans.

The school district values this kind of professional development that gives teachers access to scientists and engineers who work on real-world NASA missions and also learn how to effectively use NASA educational resources in their classrooms. Educational technology makes this kind of PD accessible at almost no cost to the school districts or to NASA.

Hopatcong teachers listening to Global Precipitation Mission Specialist


Deepika Sangam, Ph. D.
Educator Professional Development Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center