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Barbara Morgan: Always a Teacher!


Twenty-two years after being selected as the back-up candidate for NASA's Teacher in Space Program, former third-grade teacher Barbara R. Morgan finally is scheduled for lift-off: as a full-fledged astronaut. She will serve as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Endeavour mission scheduled to launch August 7. Education World talked to Morgan in May 2000, just as she was completing her second round of astronaut training -- nearly 14 years after completing the first round.

In August 1984, President Ronald Reagan launched the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Teacher-in-Space program with the announcement that a teacher would be one of the first "civilians" to travel aboard a space shuttle. In July 1985, NASA selected New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe as the primary teacher in space. NASA chose Barbara Morgan, an elementary school teacher from Idaho, as McAuliffe's backup.

In January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven people aboard, including teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe. Following the accident, Morgan returned to her third-grade classroom in McCall, Idaho, where she continued to teach and to work as NASA's Teacher in Space designee. In January 1998, NASA again selected Morgan as an astronaut candidate and assigned her to that year's astronaut training class.

Read about some of the educational and other activities on the schedule during Endeavour's mission.

Education World: You were selected as NASA's first education mission specialist. What exactly is an education mission specialist?

Barbara Morgan: Well, there are two kinds of astronauts -- pilots and mission specialists. The pilots are the commanders and pilots of the shuttle. The mission specialists serve several different roles. We train to become flight engineers, which means we monitor everything the commander and pilot do in flying the shuttle. Other jobs mission specialists perform include performing EVA, or extra-vehicular activity (space walking), conducting robotic arm work, and running onboard science experiments and education activities. An education mission specialist is someone who, along with all her other astronaut jobs, gets to focus on education. I'm glad about that! Another big part of it is providing NASA with a teacher's perspective.

EW: Does every flight have an education mission specialist?

Morgan: Now that would be great! But no -- especially not right now because there's only one person. But that will grow. My personal goal is to do the best job I can so there will be lots more. But there are education activities on many flights. For example, some flights have EarthKam. With it, students conduct research by programming an onboard digital camera to take pictures of specific places on Earth.

EW: What part of astronaut training did you find most difficult?

Morgan: The only thing that's really difficult is that there's so much to learn, and it's so exciting, and you want to learn it all, and do it well. There aren't enough hours in the day, so budgeting your time is hard.

EW: Is it physically difficult?

Morgan: [laughing] Have you ever taught a class of third graders?

EW: It's not more difficult than teaching?

Morgan: When I first arrived here, people would stop me in the hallway and say, "Boy, this is really different from teaching, isn't it? It's hard isn't it?" I'd just laugh and say, "No harder than teaching!" And they'd say, "Just wait! You're in the honeymoon period right now. Just wait until you're really in the thick of your training." And I thought to myself that they will never understand unless they've been a classroom teacher, that no matter how hard they make it, it will never be harder than teaching. That's not to say it's not physical, of course. We have to keep physically in shape. It's part of our job and part of our training. For example, over the next two weekends, we'll go through scuba training to get ready for EVA training.

EW: Why, do you think, should we teach students about space?

Morgan: Space is a great motivator. It's a natural motivator for kids. I used to tease that if you don't give kids something exciting to explore, they're going to explore on their own. They'll explore the underside of their desks for the gum that's stuck there. Space captures their imagination and allows us to help them make a connection between classroom learning and the lifelong learning that we're doing as a people. Exploring our universe is an important part of education for all of us.

EW: Do you think your training as an astronaut has made you a better teacher?

Morgan: Yes and no. The yes side is that teachers teach best through example and through experiences -- just as our children learn best through example and experiences. The more learning we can do as teachers, both inside and outside our classrooms, the richer the learning experiences we can provide for our students. Another yes is that I get to go through this astronaut training with a teacher's point of view. I'm watching very carefully how NASA teaches its astronauts and how different astronauts learn. It's given me a different perspective on learning styles and teaching styles, and I look forward to eventually being able to use that knowledge and share it with other teachers.

EW: And the no part?

Morgan: Well, I worry about losing "that touch" after being out of the classroom for a few years. Teaching is an art and a skill, and it's something that you need to practice just like any other art and skill. Part of it is like riding a bike. Once you learn how to do it, you know how to do it. But part of it is very much not like riding a bike. If you don't keep sharp on those skills, you lose them -- or at least you're not as good at them. I'll have some practicing to catch up on!

EW: So you do plan on going back to the classroom?

Morgan: Yes. Oh, yes.

EW: You don't think teaching will be boring after being an astronaut?

Morgan: The classroom boring? I never found any day boring! I love the classroom. It's such a vibrant and changing world -- every day. I think that's one of the things I love most about it. In addition to helping young people reach their potential and helping turn on those lightbulbs, you're thinking, doing, and learning -- constantly.

EW: Has being a teacher made you a better astronaut?

Morgan: Teachers are very well prepared to be astronauts. I brought with me here what every teacher brings to the classroom every single day -- motivation, determination, and an enthusiasm for learning and teamwork. Teachers are also skilled at working with complex people in a complex environment. Here, for example, each shuttle mission is an extremely technical and complex challenge. And with the International Space Station, 16 countries are working together designing and assembling in space an incredible scientific laboratory and exploration outpost. So whether I'm training for spaceflight, doing my technical "ground job," or actually flying in space, those teacher qualities make a huge difference.

EW: What is the most important part of this program to you personally?

Morgan: The most important thing to me is doing this for teachers.

EW: What did the Teacher-in-Space program do for education?

Morgan: The Teacher-in-Space program brought a lot of positive focus to education. In fact, NASA's first goal for the Teacher-in-Space program was to raise the public's image of the teaching profession. When Christa McAuliffe was chosen as our teacher in space, it was shortly after A Nation at Risk had been published, and education wasn't faring too well in the public eye. And what a great job Christa did! She showed everyone what good teachers were like and brought attention to education in a positive way.

EW: What made you sign up for the Teacher-in-Space program?

Morgan: Well, I'm a teacher, and we can't help ourselves! It was simply a wonderful opportunity to bring the world to our students and a great opportunity to highlight the important role of teachers.

EW: A NASA official has said that you were offered this opportunity because NASA has a long-standing obligation to you. Do you agree that NASA has an obligation to you?

Morgan: NASA has a long-standing commitment to teachers . NASA knows that a strong space program is built on a strong education program. Every person who works here had teachers who made a difference. This opportunity shows, in a very visible and symbolic way, how much it values classroom teachers.

EW: Did the Challenger accident affect your attitude toward the space program? Are you more fearful now, or do you have less confidence in the program?

Morgan: After the Challenger accident, when I was asked if I would continue with the program, I had absolutely no qualms. I feel the same way today. Our children learn a lot by watching what adults do. They watch to see what adults do in a good situation, and they watch to see what adults do in a bad situation. At the time of the Challenger accident, we had kids all over the country and all over the world watching to see what adults do in a bad situation. The right thing to do was to not stop our children's future, to show them that, yes, the universe is still completely open to them. We fix what's wrong and we do our best to push forward and make things better. The Challenger accident was wrong, but what the Challenger mission was trying to accomplish was right. It's important for children growing up to see adults doing this kind of thing -- living life to its fullest, learning all they can, weighing and then taking some risks for things that are important. I can't think of anything more important than our children and their education.

EW: Did your students express fear about what you're doing?

Morgan: Some of them worry, but mostly they're excited. They know why it's important, and I try to give them the confidence that even though you can't take all the risk out of it, you do everything you can. That's a big part of our training; it's a big part of how NASA makes decisions around here. Safety is number one. You can't take away 100 percent of the risks, but you also can't let that stop you from doing something important.

EW: What do you see as the most important contribution you can make to other teachers?

Morgan: I feel that the most important contribution is simply doing the best job I can to represent teachers and education well and to be a team member who helps make a mission successful -- whether it's a shuttle or a station mission or my daily technical job.

EW: Are there opportunities for other teachers to become involved in space education?

Morgan: There are many wonderful opportunities for students and teachers to become involved. I would encourage them to start online with the NASA Education Program. Those sites and non-NASA sites, such as the Challenger Center, provide programs, resources, and links to other outstanding organizations at which teachers can find hundreds of additional opportunities.

EW: Do you have a favorite space-related activity that you used with your students?

Morgan: Oh, there were so many -- and whatever activity we were doing at the time was usually our favorite! Right now what pops into my mind is a "star night" we held at the ski hill above McCall, Idaho. The temperature was 10 below zero, and at first, the parents stayed in the cars, keeping warm -- that is, until they realized how excited their kids were. Pretty soon, we had parents pushing their own children aside to look through the telescopes. The beauty of space exploration in education is that it inspires awe and wonder and enthusiasm, and it has deep connections to every curriculum area. Many of our favorite math lessons, for example, came from Mission Mathematics, a publication from the National Council of Teachers of Math. It's full of wonderful aerospace activities that helped my kids learn their math, through rich, mathematical explorations.

EW: Can you provide another example of how teachers might help students make those connections?

Morgan: The thing that's helped my students make those connections is this: We help our students learn about our world. But the world isn't just Earth. Earth is one very small part of the world. Our world is the universe. And so, for example, one year when I was teaching second grade, an English lesson on telephone etiquette triggered some questions from my students about how telephones work, which led us to learn how we communicate via satellite systems. That simple English lesson evolved into a project in which the kids designed and built their own models of communication satellites for Earth and other planets. And they used the telephone -- politely! -- to invite their parents to come see the results. I think one of the things that excites kids so much about space is that the universe, as far as we know right now, is constantly expanding -- and that provides us open-ended opportunities for very exciting learning.

EW: You mentioned earlier that interviews like this provide you with an opportunity to stay in touch with your colleagues. Is there a message you would like to send them?

Morgan: Please tell them that they have the most important job in the world -- and they are doing a great job. And tell them to keep at it because I'll be looking to pick a lot of brains when I get back to the classroom.

Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

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Originally published 05/01/2000; updated 07/20/2007