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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7
Interview

STEM Doesn’t Have to Be Rocket Science

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    NASA edtech specialist Lyle Tavernier is on a mission to make STEM accessible, magical, and engaging for all students and teachers.

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    Instructional Strategies
    Interview: STEM Doesn’t Have to Be Rocket Science
    Credit: Photo Courtesy of Lyle Tavernier
      As an edtech specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a research facility managed by the California Institute of Technology, Lyle Tavernier wants to make STEM learning more hands-on and fun. He specializes in integrating technology into K–12 classroom instruction and providing STEM education through distance learning technologies. Prior to his work at NASA, Tavernier was a classroom teacher, instructional technology coach, and new teacher mentor. In this interview, Tavernier talks about how teachers can better incorporate STEM into the curriculum and ways to make sure all students can see themselves as scientists, engineers, or mathematicians.

      In your role as an edtech specialist at NASA, how do you work with teachers and students?

      My work in the Education Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) involves taking the missions, science discoveries, and engineering innovations happening here and turning them into lessons that teachers can use in the classroom. It’s a lot of knocking on colleagues’ doors and saying, “Hey, what do you do here?” and then asking if I can try what they are doing—which might mean test-driving rovers, joining teams doing high-altitude balloon test launches, or taking pictures of Mars. I then figure out how to turn those activities into lessons that teachers from kindergarten to high school can use in their instruction.
      My team and I write lesson plans that are aligned to NGSS and Common Core math standards, so we’re not asking teachers to do any additional work. We also provide DIY projects that students can do on their own. And we write a column called “Teachable Moments,” which is designed to give teachers some background about interesting or exciting missions or discoveries that students might be hearing about so that they can then introduce those topics into the classroom.
      All our resources are available free online for anyone to access at https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu.

      Was there a particular teacher or project or event that you can remember that really sparked your own interest in science as a kid?

      My 2nd grade teacher would hold evening Moon-gazing workshops at school, and her husband would bring a telescope for us to look through. I remember just being really fascinated. I grew up in rural Oregon, so if it wasn’t a grey, cloudy night, we had very dark skies. We did weekly journals in 2nd grade, and I still have one where I said something about getting excited to watch a lunar eclipse coming up. Which I think is such a funny connection, because now I’ve written articles about upcoming lunar eclipses, and it’s fun to compare the growth between 2nd grade Lyle and the current me.
      In middle school, I had the same teacher for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, and he really impacted my view of science because we did a lot of hands-on things. And my high school science teacher, who I had for four years, also had a hands-on style of teaching science. The first day of 9th grade, he gave a very memorable demonstration of the difference between a physical and a chemical change by breaking a ruler and then lighting it on fire to show us that one was a physical change and the other was a chemical change.

      Science is all around us. So finding a way to connect that to what is being taught in the classroom or what students are interested in is pretty valuable.

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      To follow up on that, what can teachers do to make STEM more exciting, more interesting, more engaging to students?

      There’s definitely value in the hands-on aspect of science. I mean, really, science is all around us. When we walk outside, there’s meteorology happening around us with the weather. There’s biology happening around us. It’s everywhere. And so finding a way to connect that to what is being taught in the classroom or what students are interested in, making those links, is pretty valuable.
      Getting hands-on with science and engineering and understanding the processes is what makes students more engaged and excited about science or STEM, and I think it makes them more scientifically literate adults.
      During COVID-19, we really had to think about ways to help teachers do hands-on projects during remote learning. We pivoted to try to create activities that teachers could quickly implement in their remote instruction using materials that might be in the homes of their students. Being former teachers, my team is familiar with the fact that educators don’t have $100 per week per student to spend on ­materials. Our activities for the most part are very budget-friendly to begin with, but when COVID started, we had to really think, OK, how can we adjust some of these lessons to be not just classroom-budget friendly, but maybe no-budget-at-home friendly? We changed some of the lessons to use things like water bottles and plastic straws or Play-Doh or clay or something that may not have been part of our original design for the lesson, but that still taught the concept—and that either students might’ve had at home or that teachers could’ve easily packed into to-go kits.
      We were also hearing from a lot of teachers that students were just sitting in front of the screen for too long. So, our DIY projects gave students the opportunity to do a challenge or task away from the screen and come back with some artifact that was the result of their learning to share with the teacher and class.

      Teachers, especially in the earlier grades, often have a very limited time to teach science. Do you have any advice for ways they can integrate STEM concepts and learning into their curriculum?

      I used to teach 2nd and 4th grade. Second grade is not traditionally a science-heavy year, but I squeezed science concepts in wherever I could. I took a hint from an NPR show and had something called Science Friday in my class. And we would just do different observational things or different hands-on experiments. I also started an after-school science club for any student who wanted to join and coordinated the science fair for our school site for a number of years to give students opportunities to engage in scientific investigations that they might not have ­otherwise had a chance to do.
      There are definitely a lot of teachers who are excited about bringing science into the classroom and find interesting ways to do it. But like all teachers, they’re very busy and some of them just don’t have the time or sometimes even the ability to bring it in. When I say ability, it can mean a couple different things. Some teachers don’t have a scientific background, which is why we try to provide some background in our resources to build teachers’ knowledge and help them answer questions from students. Other teachers might not have the ability because their required curriculum doesn’t have a lot of options for STEM instruction. So that can be a real challenge.
      But teachers can find a way to, what I call, sneak it in. If you read something nonfiction, you can choose a book about science or a scientist. Or integrate science into language arts and history and other fields with project-based learning. Conduct a science experiment, but have students write a report about it, which can address some different language arts skills. We have an activity on our website, a lesson plan and a DIY project, where students can read and learn about different things in space. Then we show them different structures of different poems, and they can write a poem based on what they’ve learned.
      Tavernier Image 1Credit: Courtesy NASA_JPL-Caltech

      Students share their planetary lander designs as part of an activity about gravity, motion, and shock-absorption developed by NASA’s JPL education team.

      What do you think teachers struggle with when integrating technology into classroom instruction? How can they make technology more seamless and engaging to use in the classroom?

      You have to keep in mind that the majority of teachers don’t have computer science ­backgrounds. They don’t have specific training in technology education. So we need to find ways to integrate technology that are accessible and comfortable for them.
      One thing I caution teachers against is if the technology is so far out of your comfort zone that it’s going to really disrupt what you’re doing, maybe that’s not step one of technology integration. Maybe that’s a little further down the road. Another concern is when you’re integrating technology, you want to make sure that you’re still really focusing on the content or the core concepts of your lesson and that you’re not making it about whatever technology you happen to be integrating.
      That said, I’m a huge fan of using technology in the classroom. When we’re writing lessons, some of them are very specifically meant for technology. We have different coding activities that are very clearly about programming, for example. But then we also will add suggestions for integrating technology into lessons that are maybe not inherently based around technology. We have a lesson about designing a Moon lander, and one of the things that we recommend for technology integration—this is a pretty straightforward one that anybody can do with a lot of different lessons—is use the slow-motion camera on your mobile device to record what’s happening as your Moon lander is falling. This way students can watch it in slow motion and see how and where it started tilting, so maybe they need to change the center of mass.
      Another example is if you’re measuring temperature, instead of just writing down ­temperature on a piece of paper at different time points, students can put that into spreadsheet software and actually look at a graph. These aren’t major changes in terms of what’s being done for the lesson, but it gets students to get their hands on some technology and use it.

      I can sit with someone new at lunch and ask, “Hey, what do you do here?” and find out that they’re working on something that no one has ever done before.

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      What advice would you give to teachers to help all students see themselves as scientists?

      Don’t default to the standard stereotypical image of a scientist. There have been studies done where people will ask students to picture a scientist, and they picture a white male in a lab coat, but there are so many examples of scientists who are not that. JPL and NASA do a nice job of featuring scientists and engineers who are women or who are from historically underrepresented groups. So there is information out there, but it’s not always the first thing that you’ll find. STEM fields in general are very underrepresented in terms of gender and race. As a result, students might sometimes think, “Oh, science isn’t for me because I don’t see other people who look like me.”
      I think that there’s also a misperception that everyone at NASA is a super genius—that you have to be really smart to work in STEM. A kid asked me once, “Is rocket science really as hard as the jokes make it seem?” I thought that was such a fun question, but also he really wanted to know how hard it was.
      I told him it is a really challenging thing, but it’s something that you don’t have to be a super genius to do. It’s something that with hard work and dedication and a passion for the field you can do, too. I try to remind students that nobody knows every single thing about every single mission NASA does. There are people who are experts at craters at NASA who, you know, don’t know about rocket propulsion. And that’s OK because we all work together to put ideas into a single mission. Teamwork is really important.

      What is your favorite part about working at NASA?

      The coolest part about working for NASA is the people. I can leave my office, sit with someone new at lunch, and ask, “Hey, what do you do here?” and find out that they’re working on something that no one has ever done before, that I have never even heard about or imagined. And they’re seriously doing it. They’re not just saying, “Oh, wouldn’t it be neat if someday we did this?” Instead, they might say, “Do you want to come back to my lab and see the balloon that I’m developing to float around the atmosphere of Venus?” That’s just such a neat thing.
      It’s not just the engineers and scientists at NASA who have brilliant ideas. Years ago, I was talking to a group of students about how we had discovered ice in a crater. Like in a deep, shadowed crater on the moon. And I was talking to them about how we might go look for more ice. One of the students said, “Well, you could shine a light down there and look and see if there’s ice.”
      Years later, there was a mission called Lunar Flashlight, designed not to shine an actual flashlight down into these craters, but to send infrared light down there to find the ice. So, it just shows me that you can have a great idea as an engineer at NASA or as a 4th grade student in school and find new ways to explore things.
      Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.

      Tara Laskowski is ASCD's director of digital and editorial content.

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