PictureStepping out of the G-Force One
The last great adventure of my Einstein Educator Fellowship occurred on Thursday, July 18th. Sam Wheeler and I, part of the Flying Einsteins team, flew on the G-Force One Boeing 727 plane. This flight made thirty two parabolas, thirty of them simulating zero gravity and hyper-gravity (1.8 g), the last two parabolas simulated Lunar and Mars gravities. The previous day, Denise Thompson and Joe Issac flew on the same plane completing the team. Sam and I had the pleasure to fly with Dave Miller, our NASA mentor and engineer, who advised us along the process since the beginning of February on how to make our experiment safer and ready for flying. Thank you Dave, you’re a cool guy! We were part of the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program (RGEFP); there were experiments from twenty different schools and twenty-two colleges and universities. Among the universities was UTEP from El Paso, Texas, congrats Miners! Although my loyalties are with NMSU, I can’t help but to be extremely proud of such an accomplishment. I hope I can get you to talk to my students at Zia Middle School. My students would be very impressed. It is befitting that NASA selected me for this fellowship and I finished it with this RGEFP, which is ran by the Teaching from Space, a NASA Education Office from Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This experience not only brings to the fore the importance of data collection, analysis and communication but more importantly the relevance of imagination, cooperation and courage. Not so much the courage of participating in a crazy ride, but the courage of reviewing assumptions and accepting criticism to make our experiment stronger and we, better scientists, teachers and ultimately better people. That’s humbleness. I can’t wait to get back to my classroom and convey this renew enthusiasm to my students. It has also been an incredible ride since the RGEFP bespeaks not to the individual endeavor, but to the social enterprise needed to advance science and to the key feature of science, its tentativeness.

My fellowship, and this last great adventure, cannot have been possible without the unwavering support of my wife Sherrie, the inspiration of my kids, Triangle Coalition staff, and at Goddard, Dr. Robert Gabrys, Office of Education Director, Carmel Conaty, and Lynne Branch-Foster, at Headquarters, Mary Sladek and Leland Melvin. Of course, there are many people I’m omitting here, but I don’t want to make a litany of names and still forget some. I am grateful to all of you and rest assure that I take back to the classroom and my district countless inspirational lessons, lessons as only NASA’s mission and spirit can make possible.

Flying Einsteins team with Dave Miller, our NASA mentor, second from left.
The NAS-TAC met at the Keck building in DC for two days and I joined them yesterday in my capacity as an Einstein Fellow. The Teacher Advisory Council’s mission is to disseminate the communication of research to educational practice and inform researchers based on that practice. The Council advices on how initiatives and programs can be effectively implemented in schools.

Einstein Fellows might be able to become associate members of the TAC. There was a discussion about the possibility of starting teacher advisory councils at the states’ level.

Last Thursday the Fordham Institute released their report on the final draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, assigning them a grade of C. The evaluation is based on content, rigor, clarity, and specificity. The institute contends that many states have already high quality standards and NGSS are not up to the par with those. South Carolina and the District of Columbia are mentioned as examples of having clearly superior science standards compared to those of the NGSS. Pages 3 and 4 of the report list the grades for different states and NAEP, TIMSS, ACT, and PISA Frameworks relative to NGSS. Nineteen states, New Mexico among them, plus the District of Columbia score higher than NGSS.  

The Fordham Institute had also reviewed the Framework for K-12 Science Education prior to evaluating the NGSS. The Framework received a B+ from the institute, but this document was meant as a guiding piece only to the new standards. From the Framework to the NGSS, the institute raises two major issues in the NGSS: Content coverage and the dichotomy of standards as a minimum set of competencies or as challenging competencies that not all students will achieve. As the NGSS are intended for all students, the new standards entail only minimum competencies according to the Institute. The institute claims that the “NGSS suffer from the belief-widespread among educators-that practices are more important than content.”

Another point brought up by the Fordham Institute is that of the college-readiness quandary. What does it truly mean to be college-ready? Does it mean a student will be ready to major in chemistry or physics? Or be prepared for a vocational program? “The content of the NGSS itself fails to ensure that all students will be equipped with sufficient content to make real the option of taking more advanced courses in the core STEM disciplines.” This weakness in content is particularly noticed in chemistry and physics.

The report cautions on states implementing new standards and not having the support system in place. “Most states already have full plates of education reforms that are plenty challenging to implement…state leaders should be wise to consider whether they have the capacity to accomplish this in the near term.”

See here for the full Fordham Institute report.

Julie Brown, education program specialist, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Geographic Society building and talked to us about their Geo Literacy efforts. Their education website is dedicated not only to educators but to families and students alike. It is full of resources regarding mapping, globalization and cultural diversity and it has a wealth of teaching resources. There is a great opportunity for teachers, the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program,  to do research on-board the National Geographic Explorer ship during the summer months and develop lessons to apply in the classroom. We were encouraged to join the network of alliances for geographic education and provided feedback about their education materials and programs.

Friday was career day at Amidon-Bowen Elementary. The school is located two blocks away from headquarters and I was there, as part of a team from NASA, to inspire the next generation of explorers. I talked about the agency's missions and the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), aka space suit. Surprisingly, it doesn't take that long to put it on. That darn thing weighs over 200 lbs. I had it on for less than five minutes. Had a lot of fun though.

Today I attended a policy forum on dual language learners and early development led by Dr. Dina C. Castro, Principal Investigator, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The report titled “Dual Language Learners: Research Informing Policy” can be accessed at

As I was heading to the forum I thought that it has been about 40 years since Nixon vetoed a law enacted by Congress to make early education free and universal for all economically disadvantage students, then a few years after Lau vs. Nichols (a step in the right direction) was passed. It is a bit frustrating how a few steps forward are accomplished and then later a few steps are lost  in the waves of changing politics. Politics undermines policy. There is no shortage of policy solutions; but the achievement of wholesome politics is elusive.

Dr. Eugene Garcia, one of the panelists and member of the research team, highlighted three recommendations:

1.  The importance of accurate identification of language proficiency in early childhood education is essential to assist dual language learners (DLLs). This is currently non-existent. These assessments must be sensitive to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the children and designed to render reliable and valid results.

2. Focus on human capital to train and prepare teachers and ancillary personnel to better serve DLLs.

3. Aim efforts at achieving coherence for public education program from preK thru grade 12.

I raised my concern on the assessment recommendation, thinking that “reliable and valid” results in research demand standardization. How well this is going to fit with the cultural and linguistic diversity among all DLLs? Another concern, I have is the inordinate amount of short cycles assessments kindergarten students are being already submitted to. Dr. Castro clarified that not all assessments are high-stakes. I acknowledged the distinction between formative and summative assessments, and that instruction improves, among many other things, on using the information gain through assessing students. However, over testing (especially standardized high-stakes) I contend is extremely dangerous in early childhood education. I wish we could have continued the dialogue but we ran out of time. The findings of the report are important and overall, are steps in the right direction.  Let's hope politics doesn't trump research and policy.

In a report published by the Technology Assessment Study Collaborative at Boston College titled e-Learning for Educators (2010), the design and results of four randomized controlled studies were evaluated in terms of effects of online delivery professional development (OPD), on teachers’ content knowledge, pedagogy and students’ content knowledge and practice. The study was part of a larger initiative, the e-Learning for Educators (efe) Project. The subjects were 4th and 7th grade English Language Arts teachers and students, as well as 5th and 8th grade mathematics teachers and students. The four trials followed the same research design. All participants were assigned to control or experimental groups. In each trial, there were seven OPD workshops to which teachers in the experimental group participated. Of the seven sessions, the first one was an orientation session. The other six consisted of content knowledge addressing three aspects: readings, activities and discussions. The study used a one-way analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) to estimate treatment effects and account for the increase between pre-scores and post-scores among all groups (experimental and control). A hierarchical linear model (HLM) was used to estimate the treatment effect on students’ outcomes.

In general, the online professional development through the efe framework had modest to large positive effects on teachers’ content knowledge in ELA and mathematics and for all grade levels. However, students made small but statically significant improvements in isolated subject areas. It is worth noticing that all teachers volunteered to be part of the study and those selected were randomly chosen through their school. The fact that participants volunteered affects the nature of the study. These are teachers who care about professional development.

As far as I know, this is one of very few large-scale OPD studies of student achievement and it seems to indicate that this efe model has the potential to deliver more effective teaching and learning.

In another study by Wendy Rickard (2010) The Efficacy (and Inevitability) of Online Learning in Higher Education, the case is made for online learning as an integral aspect of formal and informal education. In the report three benefits are stated: Increased access to education, improved quality of education and cost containment. It is noticed through a case at Florida State College at Jacksonville, that the quality of online courses does not really match that of face-to-face programs until an element of interactivity is well planned into the online delivery. In online courses it is difficult to see how students are engaging with the content, the information and how thay are making connections relevant to their lives and majors. Thus, the idea of crafting online courses to not only serve students’ needs but also improve learning and make relevant connections has to be a priority before developing a business model for these delivery methods. However, in a recent Charlie Rose show (aired April 25th) discussing online education, there was an underlined sense of an education system putting the profit interests of institutions and program developers before the needs of students.

Rickard’s report offers other aspects that affect the pedagogy of online learning. Responsiveness refers to the pliability of the online programs and ability to adapt to scale, economy and students’ readiness. Online delivery also adjusts to diverse learning styles; the management of course and content is customized. Online delivery, Rickard continues, is student-centered providing more control to learners. Her report acknowledges two challenges; that of the institutional perspective and of the learner perspective. Although institutions of higher learning are proficient at delivering the face-to-face educational experience, few institutions understand what it takes to make online learning a meaningful and lasting experience. The training of faculty and selection of appropriate learning management systems are just two aspects when building a successful online program. This alone does not guarantee the realization of a good online program, the view among many in academia is that those students most attracted to online courses are the ones with the least potential to succeed. Many students assume that online courses are easier. It is my experience, however, that online courses more often than not require more work; that is busy work, because the instructor does not understand the nature of online learning and has not been trained to teach through that medium.

In a meta-analysis of online learning studies (2010) conducted by the U.S. Department of Education numerous advantages were highlighted. Among others, students taking online courses performed better than their counterparts who took the same courses face-to-face. Online learning seems to be an effective alternative for college students and working professionals. I found an important point, acknowledged in the report, that combining online and face-to-face components has a greater advantage over those that are completely face-to-face or all online delivered.

Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011 is a survey conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the College Board.  The interviewees are “chief academic officers” in institutions of higher learning and their responses are compared to the group’s studies conducted since 2003. When it comes to comparing online learning outcomes to face-to-face one-third of the people surveyed expressed the idea that the learning outcomes of online learning is inferior to that of face-to-face. The rest had a favorable view toward the learning outcomes of online learning. “Less than one-third of chief academic officers believe that their faculty accepted the value and legitimacy of online education. This percent has changed little over that last eight years” (p. 5). The support and training for faculty teaching online courses varies widely across colleges and universities. However, most of the training is realized through a mentoring approach or informally and only a small percentage of institutions do not offer any kind of support for their online teaching staff. The survey indicates that enrollment growth for online programs seems to have plateaued and it varies across disciplines and programs. The one area in which the survey showed that online delivery was viewed as inferior compared to face-to-face was in the student-to-student interactions. Neither this study nor the two aforementioned distinguishes between synchronous or asynchronous delivery methods; as they all speak of the benefits (from the standpoint) of scheduling flexibility.

In order for students to succeed and benefit from the educational system and enhance learning, I believe that the relationship between educator and learner is as important, if not more, as the quality of the educator. Building that relationship is part of the overall quality of education because it encourages free thinking, the flow of ideas and sense of purpose thus, seemingly, this is more feasibly accomplished through face-to-face interaction. Paulo Oemig

References (in order of appearance):

e-Learning for Educators: Effects of on-line professional development on teachers and their students

The efficiency (and inevitability) of online learning in higher education

Charlie Rose show on online education. Program aired April 25, 2013

Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning

Going the distance: online education in the United States, 2011

Dr. Garvin, middle, amidst Einstein Fellows during the visit to GSFC
On April 23rd Einstein Fellows visited Goddard Space Flight Center. I organized the day as a professional development experience. Dr. Robert Gabrys, GSFC-Office of Education Director, welcomed the Fellows. Among the speakers, John Mather, Nobel Prize winner in physics, talked to us about the influence of gravity in the formation of planets and about the James Webb Space Telescope. Dr. Mather is the senior project scientist for the JWST. James Garvin, GSFC Sciences and Exploration Directorate Chief Scientist provided an overview of leading NASA scientific missions using the Science on a Sphere.

David Willey performed at the National Science Teachers Association in San Antonio. His physics demonstrations kept us on the edge of our seats.  Check him out at
I did survive the bed of nails too!
At the 29th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Greg Chapek, program manager at Pratt & Whitney, talked to Space Foundation Teacher Liaisons on the importance of STEM careers and science.