Eileen McDougall is licensed to handle moon rocks. She knows what to do with meteorites. She’s walked on the moon, and talked with astronauts.
McDougall, a math teacher at Groveton Elementary School, spent two weeks this summer as one of 25 educators selected from across the country at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, participants in the 2002 NASA Education Workshop.
The workshop centered on the integration of math and science – a combination central to McDougall’s task at Groveton, which boasts “students speaking 26 languages, and coming from more countries than that,” McDougall said.
“I chose Groveton because of the challenges it offered. At the time it was one of the lowest in the county in math/science test scores,” she said. “Many of the students had never been to school before they arrived here. That’s why we always start at the lowest level and move up.”
But some of the lowest performing students require some of the most effort, she said, just to get them current. As American children and American students, they need to be up to par on science and math.
“To keep competitive as a nation we must get more students into engineering,” McDougall said.
WHEN MCDOUGALL came to Groveton four years ago, principal Christine Lamb was looking for a science and math teacher who would be willing to try something new, to reach some of the most unreachable students.
“When I hired Eileen, I hired an individual I knew was a risk taker and would work well with the other staff,” Lamb said. “She has so much enthusiasm, I have to rein her in at times.”
But McDougall would need more than enthusiasm. “I knew I needed a person who could work with such a diverse group of students and parents to get our math interests up,” Lamb said. “Someone who could take math from just book learning to practical concepts.”
MCDOUGALL accomplished that by establishing SMILE, Science/Math Integration Lab Experience, using hands-on lessons to teach the two subjects. “Something the students can see, touch, and actually relate to,” she said.
Her experiences at Kennedy Space Center gave McDougall an overload of hands-on lessons, a surplus of tales to tell her students, tales which she describes simply as “awesome and very intense.”
She went through simulated moon walks, a mock shuttle training mission, G-force training, Space Camp, a tour of the assembly plant for components of the International Space Station and a meeting with the crew of a recently returned Space Shuttle mission to the space station
Those were the more exciting elements of the summer program. The science teachers also spent plenty of time in classrooms and meetings, as well. All participants in the NASA program received over 110 hours of professional development in science, math, engineering, technology and geography.
BUT THOSE 110 hours still left time for fun. McDougall was also approved to handle moon rocks and meteorites.
Bringing that training back to Groveton tops McDougall’s priorities.
“There are three things I plan… as a result of my training at NASA,” she said. “One is to bring moon rocks and meteorites here to the students so they can see the actual thing. The second is to have the students undertake a fast plant science unit – the growth of hydroponic plants like they have to rely on in space.”
Third, she said, she wants to put in place a GLOBE project, Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environement. Groveton has been established as a global observation site, according to the teacher.
“The students will start with weather observation. They will read and collect data from a 24 hour thermometer. That will be sent to scientists who are collecting global weather data. These scientists will then give the kids feedback on their data. The kids will be doing real research, with real feedback, from real scientists,” she said.
AS FOR THE MOON ROCKS and meteorites, McDougall plans to use them to teach her students how to identify various characteristics. “They will become something a lot more than just pictures in a book,” she specified.
As one of only three teachers from the Washington area to attend the NASA workshop, McDougall is what’s called a resource teacher. This means that she teaches not only students but also other teachers on how to use practical examples in math and science.
In a letter to Lamb Pamela M. Biegert from the Education Programs and University Research Division, Kennedy Space Center, thanked Groveton for letting McDougall attend the workshop, and emphasized the point of the summer school for teachers.
“NASA’s goal to better prepare our future generation of explorers is enhanced through the teachers that participate in this program and bring their unique experiences back to their classrooms and their schools,” Biegert wrote.
“In addition, we ask participants to share their learning experience with other teachers. They are challenged to become ambassadors of NASA’s education programs by instilling an interest of space science and engineering in their communities and schools.”
Denise Davis, a new third grade teacher at Groveton, attests to McDougall’s commitment to that challenge. “Eileen has taken me under her wing. We team teach. She’s really teaching me ways to reach such a wide range of students. She has so many ways to teach,” Davis said.