When Isaac Tenorio found out he had been accepted to NASA’s Educator Institute at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, he was excited about what he would learn, and the wealth of experiments and lesson plan ideas he could bring back with him to start his teaching career on the tiny island of Saipan — a U.S. commonwealth in the western Pacific.
But after a week at JPL, Tenorio — a senior at Northern Marianas Island College in Saipan — was surprised to discover how eager he was to bring his knowledge and experience back to his fellow colleagues.
“The amount of information, activities and experiments we learned about over the week was just so valuable, I’m excited to share this entire experience with my classmates so they can use it in their future classrooms,” Tenorio said.
Tenorio was one of 50 pre-service teachers accepted to attend the NASA Minority University Research and Education Project’s (MUREP) weeklong Educator Institute held at JPL this past June. It was for teachers planning to teach elementary grades once they finish their schooling. JPL hosted another week-long session this week for future high school teachers.
The program’s objective is to bring students from Minority Serving Institutions to NASA centers for a unique STEM professional development opportunity.
Education Program Specialist Ota Lutz of JPL said the Educator Institutes have always been a chance to empower future teachers, and each day’s schedule is filled with a mix of learning activities such as Play-Doh volcano demonstrations, tours of JPL’s facilities, and talks from scientists, researchers and engineers.
“Textbooks are good, but sometimes you just need some current information and to put together a cardboard rover, or to build a 20-foot inflatable planetarium out of trash bags,” Lutz said. “We can provide those lessons; those up-to-date experiences backed by some of the world’s leading research.”
While the Educator Institutes typically attract students from schools in the Los Angeles region, this year’s program included representatives from Northern Marianas College and Salish Kootenai College — a Native American tribal college in Montana.
Julius Weaselhead was one of five students from Salish Kootenai participating this year. Once she finishes her senior year, Weaselhead hopes to teach third grade in a tribal community.
“I really feel empowered to use the tools and lesson plans that NASA has outlined on its education sites,” Weaselhead said. “I have never been a big STEM person, but after this week, I feel like I can bring a hands-on approach to teaching science-based topics.”
Having schools participating from outside California brought a new layer of geographic diversity to the program, and meant that the educators were sometimes getting the education.
“It’s something we don’t think about much, but Los Angeles is home to the second largest population of Native Americans in the country,” Lutz said. “We often talk about meeting the needs of underserved or minority communities in the region, and it is really good for the local teachers in the area, and us, to think about the Native American presence here. Understanding cultural heritage while at the same time teaching science-based curriculum is important.”
Hitting Close to Home
For Tenorio and his fellow Northern Marianas College students, a climate change presentation by Science Data Application Lead Karen Yuen of JPL turned into a real-world wake up call for the entire group.
“You don’t see it here in the mainland, but over there, the sea levels are rising, we’re losing our islands,” Tenorio said. “A lot of our brothers and sisters on neighboring islands, their homes are gone. I wanted to let other people know about our situation back home, and that every action really does count. Every conservation act really does count. I cannot blame anybody for not caring. It’s a tiny island in the Pacific and we’re way out there. But I want people to know that this is happening. And I felt like that was a special moment when I was able to tell people here, and they know now.”
Lutz said Tenorio’s words resonated with the group.
“I was watching the faces of the kids from the local colleges, and they were just silent. It really brought home that what we’re talking about here is really happening out there.”
It was indicative of what the MUREP Educator Institute is about: Give future educators the information and tools NASA has at its disposal, and empower teachers to inspire the next generation of students.
“Our activities and lessons are tools, they’re not the be-all-end-all,” Lutz said. “What we strive to do is educate teachers on how to educate the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and so on to not just be good students, but critical thinkers.”
This particular MUREP Educator Institute ran from June 25-29. In addition to Northern Marianas College and Salish-Kootenai College, pre-service teachers from UC Riverside, Cal State Northridge, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Los Angeles and La Sierra University attended.
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.