Maine 2020 and 2021 Teachers of the Year Attend NASA Space Camp Experience

Gorham Middle School Alternative Education Teacher and 2020 Teacher of the Year Heather Whitaker and Gerald E. Talbot Community School 4th Grade Teacher and 2021 Teacher of the Year Cindy Soule, recently attended the NASA Space Academy as part of their recognition as a Maine Teacher of the Year.

Held at NASA’s Space Camp Headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama, the program includes authentic astronaut training simulators and activities developed to promote learning in a classroom setting. Curriculum includes NASA-inspired lesson plans and is correlated to the National Science Education Standards.

The 5-day professional learning opportunity is part of the National Teacher of the Year program, which is offered to State Teachers of the Year from across the country. Whitaker and Soule embarked on the opportunity separately last month with their Teacher of the Year colleagues from around the country from their respective years of recognition.

The individual experiences of both left them with many skills they will be bringing into their classrooms this fall.

For Soule, the program made her reflect on the power of building a community. One activity that stuck with her involved building a protective heat shield for an egg and keeping it from getting charred from fire. While there were others in her group who had more of an engineering background, she felt her voice, and everyone’s, was heard and valued equally, which allowed them to come together as a community in order to succeed.

The Academy provided a variety of experiences to the educators including a space flight simulation to Mars as well as a return flight from the Moon back to Earth and experience in a multi-axis trainer which simulates being in a rocket.

While the Space Academy certainly provided the educators with some practical skills for the classroom, the enrichment provided seeped into personal reflection as well. Whitaker says she was “naïve” before attending the Space Academy on the importance of space travel. During her time at camp, she found herself noticing all the various innovations to life on Earth that have come from space, making her that much more acutely aware of how small human beings are in comparison to the entirety of space. She came to this realization during a planetarium exhibition where she began to reflect on the day to day things that stress her out and made her consider how finite life on earth is- leaving her with one thought- “Why can’t we all get along?”

The experience certainly left each educator with some invaluable lessons but they also managed to have a lot of fun throughout. The first night of the Academy was the “Parade of States”- all of the Teachers of the Year from each state were asked to dress up in a costume that represented their state.

Heather dressed as a Maine Blueberry and Cindy dressed as an amalgamation of important parts of Maine including, a lobsterman, a blueberry shirt (gifted to her by Liberty Maine Graphics), and a Maine state flag hat.

Living in the Alabama dorms allowed for the participants to have plenty of time to socialize and network. Both stated they have made friends and colleagues for life.

Attending the Space Academy would not be possible if not for the support of Educate Maine, the Maine Department Of Education, and the generous donations from program sponsors. Both are extremely grateful for the opportunity and are so thankful for the lifelong lessons they will hold from the experience.