From History Geek to NASA Nerd

Mary Jo Robertson has always loved math, but through new professional development opportunities, she has become a self-professed history geek. Thanks to the NASA Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium STELLAR Program, she proudly says, “It took 10 days out of my summer, but what I got in return is so much better. I’m now a NASA nerd.” 

In June 2022, Mary Jo Robertson saw a post on a Facebook page about a unique professional development opportunity and she decided to take a chance. “It was the day the application was due,” Robertson recalls. “I submitted my application at 11:30 before it was due at midnight.”

Robertson is in her 25th year of teaching at Fargo-Gage Public Schools in Northwest Oklahoma. While teaching 7th & 8th Grade Math and Social Studies, she is always looking for new ways to engage her students and herself in lifelong learning. So when an out-of-this-world opportunity presented itself, she jumped.

The chance paid off.  According to their website, the STELLAR (STEM Teachers Experience Linking Learners to Aerospace Research) program was created “to provide educators of all grades and subject areas with top-notch classroom resources to enhance hands-on STEM in the classroom and equip them with the necessary tools to empower our next generation of STEM thinkers and doers!”

The group of 16 educators meets from July to April. Members include pre-service teachers from various Oklahoma colleges, as well as current classroom teachers.  “The grant is set up for teachers in three districts in the Oklahoma City area, but last year they didn’t have anyone apply from those districts so they opened it up statewide,” Robertson said.

STELLAR program participants have monthly challenges they must complete as part of the program curriculum. The challenges take 1-3 hours and vary from listening to a podcast and writing a paper about the topic, to stargazing and journaling about it. In addition to the monthly challenges, participants attend a 10-day hands-on training program and two weekend sessions all on the OSU campus, and help host a recruitment table for future participants.  Additionally participants are invited to a VIP trip to the Johnson Space Center at the conclusion of the program.  All expenses are covered by the Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium.

One of the highlights of the program for Robertson was helping to fly a plane. “I hate flying, but that was probably one of my favorite things we have done.” She continued, “After I flew, I was standing on the wing waiting to change places with my classmate so they could fly.  I asked someone to take my picture.  When I look back at that picture, it makes me smile. I didn’t realize the joy I had at that moment.”

Robertson concedes that looking for additional PD is not something that all teachers are interested in, but she hopes others will search out interesting opportunities. “Going into this I knew I would struggle and would be way out of my comfort zone, but that’s what I ask of my students every day. It has been good for me to be in this position, to empathize with my kids more.”

For more information on the STELLAR program, visit their website at http://spacegrant.oknasa.org.

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