Barbara Morgan: Keeping Education Human
Credit: Peter Hoey
There aren't many teachers who, when asked what they did for their summer vacation, can say they rode to the International Space Station aboard a space shuttle, toting ten million cinnamon basil seeds for a little project learning while she was there. Barbara Morgan can. An educator who began her career in 1974 teaching reading on a Montana Indian reservation, she has enjoyed the ultimate in field trips. But it is clear that her voyage last August on STS-118 did not overwhelm her primary passion. Morgan is a teacher first and an astronaut second.
"I've really missed being in the classroom," she says. "I've missed the kids. It's tremendous work, and I look forward to the day when I can go back."
Morgan has been involved with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for more than twenty years, starting in 1985, when she was selected as the backup Teacher in Space Program candidate for Christa McAuliffe. Her flight last summer was an assembly mission to help complete the space station, designed as a stepping-stone for returning to the Moon for extended exploration and, later, on to Mars. "There are so many big, big questions that need to be answered, and one of those is, 'If you have people exploring the Moon for long durations, how do you feed them?'" says Morgan.
Which brings us back to the millions of seeds she carried into space. The idea, Morgan says, is to have K-12 students get involved in solving one of space exploration's biggest problems -- feeding long-term explorers -- by giving the kids an engineering challenge in which they'll design, as she describes it, "a working model of a growth chamber for the Moon, or for Mars." To encourage young inventors, the seeds are being packaged and shipped to students and teachers who request them at the Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Web site, part of NASA's Engineering Design Challenge. Once students receive the seeds, she says, they "do what we get to do: explore, experiment, and do some creative thinking."
"I think that kids learn best by doing," Morgan says, explaining why she believes the challenge is so valuable. "It's really important that we give our students opportunities to experience the real world in as real a way as they can, and get them involved now."
What is most crucial, Morgan is asked, about how K-12 education prepares students for the twenty-first century?
"With all our wonderful technology, what's most important is that we keep education human for our kids," she says, "and that we remember to use technology for what it is: a tremendous tool, a tool for teachers, a tool for students -- but it doesn't replace teachers and students. Children need nurturing and understanding, and even with highly interactive computer learning programs, it seems students can tell when there's no one behind it."
When Morgan visits classrooms to talk about her experiences as an astronaut, the kids ask plenty of questions. One of the most frequent is "Were you scared?" It's an excellent question, she says, because "it provides an opportunity for us to talk about risks: why we take risks, what's important, what's not important, and about how wonderful spaceflight is."
One of the most unusual questions asked during a classroom visit was "What kind of car do you drive?" "It was really funny to me," says Morgan. When she replied that she drives a Prius, she adds, "they all burst out cheering. They liked the idea of a hybrid. They were really in tune. It was neat."
The neat thing about Morgan -- and it must make her especially effective as an educator, whether in a classroom or in space -- is that, even though she's a highly trained astronaut, she has not lost her sense of wonder, joy, and enthusiasm for all that she's experiencing, and she's skilled at conveying it. You feel the exhilaration of being an explorer when she talks about looking out the window of the space station just before going to bed. "We were on the nighttime side of the Earth," she remembers. "Off in the distance, I saw a thin blue line. It was very quiet, because there weren't any human noises, and I was hanging there and not touching anything. I was weightless."
As Morgan describes the sunrise in rhapsodic terms, she speaks of "incredible layers of blue" and the station's glistening solar panels catching the Sun's rays: "They actually glow like the filaments in your toaster do, only, instead of red, they glow brilliant Inca gold." The solar panels resembled massive sails, Morgan recalls, which made her think of early explorers sailing the oceans in the most advanced vehicles of their time. And, given that perspective, even though the space station is "a chunk of machinery," the NASA mission and its reliance on technology felt to her like "a very natural, human thing to do."
Just before she closed the window shade so she could go to sleep, Morgan says, "off in the distance, I saw the crescent Moon, and I know this is impossible physics wise, but it seemed like it would be so easy to take a right turn and head off that way. It brought the past and the present into the future."
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
When I was in the classroom every day with the kids, we used the Web as a tool -- for research, and to share projects and things that they were learning with others, and especially for hands-on science projects.
At NASA, in the spaceflight program, we use technology all the time. All of our day-to-day work, especially our communications, and a lot of the training, is Web based: Mission Control, how we communicate, and the products that we use to communicate with the ground team and our orbit crews -- all Web based.
And all our simulators are high tech. One of our favorite places is the virtual reality lab, where we do a lot of integrating the training between our robotics and our spacewalking. We do a lot of the spacewalking training in a very large swimming pool, about 40 feet deep. At the bottom of the pool, there's a full-sized model of the space station and the space shuttle. Our spacewalkers suit up and go in the pool, and then, using cameras and computers and other technology, we communicate with them.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
Nature. Curiosity. Children's imaginations. My colleagues and my teammates.
Who are your role models?
Other schoolteachers, starting with my master teacher, Margaret Blackford. When I was student teaching, I was so lucky to be with her. I still have my Margaret Blackford file; that will always be with me. I've been very fortunate to get to team teach with a lot of partners, and I've learned from every one of them. And of course Christa McAuliffe, our first teacher in space. I learned a tremendous amount from Christa and the rest of our Challenger crewmembers. I learned a great deal from every single one of them about both teaching and leadership.
Another role model of mine is Jane Goodall, and Katy Payne -- she used her powers of observation to discover that elephants communicate by low-frequency sounds. I've used her story, and how she learned, with my students many, many times. And a friend up in McCall, Idaho, where carpenter ants thrive, who I watched pull a carpenter ant off the floor of his living room and take it outside rather than kill it.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
Well, it makes me laugh. But I guess if I can do it, you can do it.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
There is nothing more important than our children and their future. The universe offers all of us open-ended and never-ending learning opportunities, and that's especially important for our kids, but it's for all of us. One thing I've come to learn through my experiences with space exploration -- both the good and the bad experiences -- is that we can't predict the future, but we can help shape it. I believe that good learning starts with curiosity. One of the greatest things about human beings is that we get to learn and, even more importantly, we get to share our lives with other human beings. There is great reward in working with and for other people.
When we set up our classroom at the beginning of the year, we had goals. This was a home away from home, and our job -- no matter what was going on in students' lives at home -- was to make this their home away from home. They didn't all have high-functioning families, but we kept our doors open. There will be lots of roadblocks that will be put in the way, but you can keep those doors open. And that helps prepare you for whatever opportunities may come knocking.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
I ask myself, "What would a teacher do?" And that seems to take care of just about anything.
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