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October 21, 2009 > Teacher's dedication shines through

Teacher's dedication shines through

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By courtesy of Annette Iwamoto

Teacher Annette Iwamoto says there are many people in life she has admired, those who in her words have "shown bravery, taken risks and made a difference." Included among them are Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Barack Obama, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. "These are all people who have had a vision of something more, something better and overcame obstacles to achieve."

Iwamoto's fourth and fifth grade students, at Searles Elementary school in Union City, would probably add her name to that list, serving as an inspiration to them after her recent trip to monitor the "third flyby" of MESSENGER.

Launched in 2004, MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging spacecraft. With each orbit around Mercury, it provides valuable information and incredible photos to send back to Earth.

"I have always been interested in space exploration, ever since we watched the Apollo 11 astronauts walk on the moon in 1969," says Iwamoto. "Those black and white images are still fresh and clear in my mind."

In the mid-1980's, Iwamoto heard that NASA was planning to send a civilian into space, and in particular, a teacher. Although she was too late to apply, she followed the mission and untimely tragedy of Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger crew. "In my teaching I encourage my students to dream, to push themselves beyond what seems possible, to learn by discovery, to explore," adds Iwamoto.

In 2004, she was notified that NASA was putting together a team of 30 teachers from around the United States, to serve as Teaching Fellows for the upcoming MESSENGER mission to Mercury. Those selected would have an opportunity to be trained on certain aspects of the mission and K-12 teaching modules related to space science.

According to Iwamoto, "This opportunity sounded too good to resist. I completed the application that included essays describing my interest and teaching strengths. I needed to include a videotaped science lesson with my students, and letters of recommendation and support from our district administrators."

When she was notified of her selection, Iwamoto was thrilled and made plans to attend the week-long training session in Florida, during the week of MESSENGER's launch. She learned from the scientists responsible for building it and was inspired by their dedication. "It was a fantastic opportunity to work side-by-side with real NASA scientists and bring this world back into the classroom," Iwamoto says.

The Fellows also had an opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center and to learn the modules for teaching space study. In the "Voyage" module, students learn to make a scale model of the solar system, the planets and our place in the universe. "Staying Cool" teaches about the sun and how it affects us. The last module, "Ice," deals with different states of water and how liquid, water and gas exist in the universe.

Iwamoto doesn't teach them all as one unit, but instead prefers to weave Space Science throughout everything she does during the school year to make it hands-on and relevant for the students. She also incorporates reading and writing activities into the modules as well.

"We are expected to train 100 teachers per year to use these hands-on teaching modules in their classrooms. With 30 of us, training 100 teachers a year, that is a lot of students who can be reached," says Iwamoto.

Last month, in September, Iwamoto flew to Columbia, Maryland in her capacity as a NASA Fellow, to observe the "third flyby" of Mercury during its closest orbit to date. Iwamoto was headquartered at Applied Physics Lab located at John Hopkins University, which built and is monitoring MESSENGER.

"I love to teach about discovery, whatever the students are interested in and to be self-motivated to learn, says Iwamoto. Space exploration gives you a sense of adventure and I like to find things that inspire and bring it back to kids."

"Our role there was to link out to the rest of the world, to share what was happening with MESSENGER and to use email, Twitter, anything to get the word out," says Iwamoto.

"As MESSENGER came closer, we went to a minute by minute schedule with data from Mission Control. Then the data stopped and there was silence, right before the point in its closest orbit to Mercury," explained Iwamoto.

It turned out that MESSENGER had sensed something wrong and switched to battery power from solar panels, going into "Safe Mode" to protect itself.

"NASA lost those 7 minutes of closest approach data, but it still was able to get great photos when entering and exiting the Mercury orbit. Yes, there had been a glitch and the scientists needed time to figure it out," says Iwamoto. "This reinforces the teaching concept of strategies; these are all the strategies and this is how we solve the problem."

"Seeing how the scientists work reaffirmed for me my passion for teaching," says Iwamoto. "Kids have to be involved in Science."

Reflecting on how she decided to become a teacher, Iwamoto recalls the teachers she had growing up, "There's something magical about teachers and what they did every day."

Now in her thirty-first year of teaching, thirty at Searles Elementary School, Iwamoto is grateful to all the teachers and Principal Deborah Knoth for their support. "The administration and my fellow colleagues have been very supportive of my endeavors and I like sharing what I have learned for the benefit of the whole school."

"My goal in all of this is not just to teach people about the MESSENGER mission, but also to encourage and inspire my fellow teachers to use science as a vehicle to get students interested in reading, math, and science," says Iwamoto.

"Just by using the textbook, students don't learn enough," she says. "They need the hands-on process. Almost every aspect of our lives is connected to science and we should exploit the students' personal connections to help them understand their world."

Email Annette Iwamoto at:
MESSENGER website:

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