Beaasting NASA Science into the Classroom in the COVID Era and Beyond – Teacher Feature

Jayme Wisdom has taught at the Vaughn Charter System in Pacoima, California for 15 years. She has taught science in eighth grade for most of her career but switched to biology in high school for the first time this year.

Ms. Wisdom has long used the educational resources of NASA and JPL to find creative ways to tailor teaching to the needs of her students and get them excited about STEM careers.

As a self-described professional nerd, she doesn’t shy away from her love of anything Star Trek and Star Wars (and stands firm in her refusal to choose what is superior). During a recent JPL Education workshop, she shared how she continues to inspire her students to learn science – both in the classroom and remotely – during the COVID era.

What are the unique challenges you face when addressing or addressing your students’ needs?

Many of the students I teach face challenges such as poverty, homelessness and learning English as a second language. This year in particular has been extremely difficult for all of us dealing with pandemic and distance learning. As a teacher, I had to find ways to ensure that my students engage in scientific research and have access to resources and materials while studying remotely. This begins and ends with a conscious effort to recognize that children are struggling with this online format and saving time in each and every class in order to provide the socio-emotional support they would expect from a classroom setting. Before we dive into any content, you need to take the time to check in and update. In any personal classroom, we take the time to get to know each other, and being online shouldn’t detract from that. Of course, as we’ve all learned this year, easier said than done.

Social isolation is another factor that adds to the challenges of distance learning. Although students see their peers virtually, it is often difficult for them to open up and speak as freely as they would if they were in a physical classroom. So I had to find ways to make sure my students were comfortable in a virtual environment by giving them the ability to talk to each other and collaborate online.

Using breakout sessions was difficult at first as the students were very confident about talking to each other on screen and reluctant to share ideas. That’s why we spent the first few minutes in each class each day talking to each other via text-based chat so that they can socialize and feel more comfortable with this new type of interaction. Now they feel more comfortable doing scientific research together and have meaningful discussions to expand their learning. It’s not the same as doing labs together in class, but things are definitely improving.

Another challenge was providing all of my students with access to resources and materials that they can use to simulate a laboratory experience at home. I was pleasantly surprised at the abundance of resources available to me as a teacher to provide virtual labs and activities for my students. Whether it’s virtual demonstrations and simulations, or scientific research that requires simple materials that students can find throughout the house, we have been very resourceful in helping us provide the best possible experience for students through distance learning. Promoting laboratory science with housewares has been instrumental in engaging students as they can truly explore in their own context and express themselves creatively using what is available to them rather than providing the materials.

How have you used the lessons from NASA and JPL to keep the students busy personally and remotely during the class?

I’ve always been fascinated by space and loved sci-fi TV shows and movies since I was very young. As a teacher, I’ve been so excited to find ways I can use my love for astronomy to motivate my students.

When I discovered the resources and lessons from NASA and JPL, I went through them like a kid in a candy store. I found so many different activities that I could adapt them to my own classroom. In the past few years I have used several JPL Education lessons and modified and expanded them for my students.

While distance learning had its challenges, Ms. Windsom found that early in the class, students were more willing to work together and share their designs for projects that are usually done in the classroom, like these cardboard provers. Courtesy Shirley Yong and Malak Kawtharani | + Expand image

For example, I took JPL’s touchdown lesson and allowed students to create their own planet landers from materials they could find around them. I asked them to find a way to quantify how much impact the touchdown would have on the “astronauts” in their country. Some students used play dough balls as astronauts and quantified the impact by measuring the dents in the play dough with paper clips placed on the “seats” of their lander.

Another example was when I combined the Soda-Straw Rocket and Stomp Rockets lessons. I had my students build a straw missile to study how changing the angle of the missile launch could affect the distance the missile traveled.

My students also had the opportunity to participate in engineering activities with JPL and students from Pasadena City College. The effects this has had on my students have been profound and long-lasting. It was inspiring for my students to hear from NASA scientists and student role models encouraging them to pursue careers in science, engineering, and technology.

Students watch, some hold their ears while Ms. Wisdom holds a large red balloon while NASA / JPL Education Specialist Brandon Rodriguez lights a match underneath as part of the global warming demonstration.

Ms. Wisdom says presentations by STEM professionals go a long way towards engaging students. That is why she has made them an integral part of her lessons – whether in person or remotely. Courtesy Shirley Yong and Malak Kawtharani | + Expand image

How did the students react to this lesson?

The biggest payoff for me was having students introduce themselves as NASA scientists. They learned to work together, to learn from one another and to challenge one another. You could experience every step of the engineering process first hand. They were actively involved in designing, building and testing their missiles and landers. You could also gather information by watching other students revise and improve their designs. They had so much fun learning from each other. As a teacher, one of the best parts of my job is watching my students build their critical thinking, practical skills, and problem-solving skills.

You switched from teaching middle school to teaching high school this year. How do you think about including NASA resources in the classroom for older students?

Growing up, I loved how the technology that I saw on the science fiction shows I watched as a kid finally made it into our reality. Time and again I am amazed at how NASA scientists push the boundaries of technology development and are only limited by the scope of their imaginations.

As a high school biology teacher, I look forward to my students studying how space technology is being used to help people improve the health of the planet. Studying climate change and the ecological impact of humans on the environment is so important. Looking at how NASA is collecting data to better understand climate change is especially important right now as my students’ generation will play a pivotal role in developing technologies to improve life on earth. I look forward to continuing to use JPL Education resources to prepare my students for this challenge.

Are you looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom, or do you already have a great idea? NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory education office serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at [email protected].

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TAGS: Classes, Teachers, K-12, Middle School, High School, Distance Learning, Classroom, Classroom, Educators, Workshops, Professional Development

  • Brandon Rodriguez

    Brandon Rodriguez, Professional Development Educator, NASA / JPL Edu

    Brandon Rodriguez is the professional development educator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition to promoting STEM education, he enjoys reading philosophy, traveling, and talking to your dog as if he were a person.

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