"I'm math illiterate," along with `I'm science phobic" are familiar statements to NASA's Dr. Sandra Proctor -- in fact, they are among the statements she hears most often from students.
Proctor, special assistant for education at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., developed a program proposal years ago along with Roger Hathaway, also of NASA Langley, that would take the fear out of teaching and learning math and science. The program was targeted specifically to minority college students interested in teaching on the elementary and secondary level, preparing them to teach in the areas of science, math and technology.
"We can't let them be science phobic and take that into the classroom," Proctor says of the prospective teachers. "We have to break it down here."
The "here" this year was Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington. Last month 500 college students from approximately 30 historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges attended the Seventh Annual NASA/Norfolk State University Pre-Service Teacher Conference.
The students, also referred to as pre-service teachers, chose from 36 hands-on workshops led by area public school teachers, NASA scientists, college faculty and representatives from the technology industry.
There's no "chalk and talk" approach to teaching during the two-day conference, says Proctor, on loan to NASA from Norfolk State, whose School of Science and Technology is the grantee. The faculty expects the students to be engaged from the start and not just to sit and listen.
In one workshop, a faculty facilitator was commanding the students to "blow, blow, blow, fuel, fuel, fuel!"
Using basic materials -- balloons, Styrofoam cups, string and a stick -- the 30 prospective teachers made rockets, cheering when it was evident their project was successful.
"This is what makes science fun," Proctor says.
STEPPING UP THE INTENSITY
Proctor and her colleagues say the two-day conference provides the pre-service teachers with exposure. For many of the students, it is their first experience meeting other students from around the country who have the same interests and career goals.
"It's their first induction into professionalism," says Dr. Leo Edwards, director of the Math/Science Education Center at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.
Hathaway, university affairs officer at NASA Langley, says the conference also is an opportunity to make students aware of the challenges of teaching, while fostering interaction between faculty and students.
But the conference, the faculty facilitators say, is just a taste of what they really want to offer the students. When Proctor and her colleagues first presented the pre-service teacher conference concept to NASA Headquarters in Washington seven years ago, officials there immediately told her to begin the program and to expand it. The expanded program is a summer institute hosted by NASA Langley for approximately 20 to 25 students per session. Three two-week sessions are held throughout the summer.
"It's probably the most intense thing they've (students) ever done," says Dr. Arthur W. Bowman, associate professor of biology at Hampton University and director of Hampton's Science Education Center. Bowman also is a faculty facilitator at both the conference and the institute.
"Intense" is a word that is used frequently when describing the institute. Nevertheless, students and faculty speak highly of the program.
"We meet people who feel the same way about education," says Michelle Posley, past institute participant and a senior at Fayetteville State University majoring in secondary education. With all of the institute's expenses paid for by NASA's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, "All we had to do was gain from the experience," Posley says. "We just had to give of our time."
At the summer institute, students follow a structured schedule, with little free time built into the two-week experience. In the workshops and sessions, students are given real problems to solve -- problems encountered by NASA scientists.
"The stress level is high among the students, and it probably gets higher before it gets lower," says Bernie Freeman, a faculty facilitator.
Students must incorporate technology into their presentations. Some students admit that early in the summer program they question why they have subjected themselves to the intensity, but at some point during the institute the students truly get excited and energized about learning and teaching subjects they had once shied away from.
"Everyone has misconceptions about science," Bowman says. "We take arcane concepts and make them simple." He adds that, from the opening banquet, "we are working to demystify science."
The conference, as well as the summer institutes, give the faculty facilitators opportunities to showcase their innovative teaching styles, which are not lost on the students.
Nancy Rosario, a senior at Florida International University doing her student teaching, says she often feels like she's teaching only to prepare students for their standardized tests, thereby not leaving much room for creativity in the classroom.
"Here's the textbook. Learn it," says Rosario about the teaching style she grew up with. She says the conference has given her ideas and suggestions for making teaching and learning fun.
Many of the faculty, regardless of their race or ethnicity, say they would have benefited tremendously from a similar program when they were in college.
"It would have been a jumpstart," says Edwards of Fayetteville State. "I didn't have an induction program. It would have been good to observe before teaching."
Freeman, an education consultant, grew up in Newport News, Va., just miles from NASA Langley and says "I never knew there was anything for an educator at NASA. I feel fortunate to get on the other side of the fence."
SPREADING THE WEALTH
Soon, there will be many more faculty and students getting the opportunity to get on the other side of the NASA fence. Beginning this summer, NASA summer institutes also will be held at NASA Marshall in Huntsville, Ala., and NASA Johnson in Houston, funded by NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space program.
Proctor says the program will attract students from the HBCUs, HSIs and tribal colleges in the surrounding regions. In March, NASA Langley will hold an intensive training session for the new faculty facilitators so that the Alabama and Texas institutes will be up and running by May.
George E. Reese, associate administrator of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs at NASA Headquarters, says the pre-service teacher program fits in well with NASA's mission.
"NASA and the federal government have recognized that there's a shortage of individuals getting advanced degrees in science, math and technology, but the tech jobs are increasing," Reese says, adding that educating the U.S. work force, minorities and otherwise, will help NASA continue to be the pre-eminent space agency. "We have to keep up our level of expertise."
Reese says he hopes the pre-service teacher conferences and summer institutes will serve as a reinforcement for students who want to be teachers, particularly those who may be borderline.
"Teaching is such a challenge. By coming to the conference, I hope it reinforces their idea that, `Yes, I want to be a teacher. I can be a teacher.' Or they may decide they don't want to, and that's fine, too," Reese says.
Maisha Holmes was one of those borderline students.
Holmes, a senior at the University of the District of Columbia majoring in early childhood education, says she was leaning toward a career as a childcare center director prior to attending the conference.
"In 1 1/2 days I've decided to become a teacher," Holmes says. `I'm having a great time. After this experience, I know I can do this."
In addition to participating in the workshops, the pre-service teachers received visits from U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Roderick Paige and several educators who served as keynote speakers, such as Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Dr. Robert Moses, former civil rights activist and founder of the Algebra Project.…