Volunteer Program Connects Underserved Students with Practical Science

NASA astronaut Nancy Currie demonstrates how sleeping bags are used aboard the ISS (credit: Durham Public Schools)

NASA astronaut Nancy Currie demonstrates how sleeping bags are used aboard the ISS (credit: Durham Public Schools)

By Tony Rice

A memory popped up on my Facebook feed this morning of an event five years ago today at Neal Middle School in Durham.

Students gathered in the gym to make contact with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Astronaut Nancy Currie was there to share her experiences living in space, and students asked questions of Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank and Flight Engineer Don Pettit aboard the station.

Over 10 weeks, I’d taught an after school science class at the school as a part of the Citizen Schools program. Lowe’s Grove and Sherwood Gathers middle schools in Durham also participate in the program, now in its seventh year.

These schools face the same challenges as others in low-income communities. According to the 2015-16 report card from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, less than 10 percent of Neal Middle students demonstrate math skills at grade level.

Citizen Schools is a nationwide program which focuses on what program’s co-founder Eric Schwarz calls the "opportunity gap." Schwarz says it is the primary driver in the growing achievement gap we hear more about between students from lower-income families and their peers from upper-middle incomes. Nick Malinowski, program manager for North Carolina, adds “lower-income families spend a tenth of what upper-income ones do on opportunities outside the classroom. Things like music lessons, tutors, camps, and travel.”

Corporate partners like EMC, Cisco, BioGen and Fidelity provide volunteers and other resources to expose students to subjects they do not see during the school day. Volunteer teachers choose from a list including web design, robotics, finance, entrepreneurship and engineering, to name a few. I went pretty far off that script, teaching a 10-week class on space weather.

There is no way I could have pulled this off without a lot of support. Cisco helped me make time to volunteer and purchased a solar telescope that students used each week. NASA provided expertise and other resources.

When I reached out to a colleague at NASA’s Planetary Science Directorate for guidance, he brought me immediately into the office of Dr. Lika Guhathakurta, lead program scientist for NASA's Living With a Star initiative. Guhathakurta helped us create an engaging program that combined enough math and physics for it all to make sense, a tap into the current NASA missions studying the sun, coupled with regular observations with that solar telescope.

We also brought in, via Skype, guests whose jobs are impacted by the changing behavior of the sun.

A veteran American Airlines pilot talked with students about how space weather impacts crews and passengers on high latitude flights, particularly those over the North Pole. He also took some time to share how his time in the military had enabled him not only to earn his wings but enabled him earn a degree.

A engineer with Southern Company shared how solar activity is monitored day to day to protect the power grid. Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and the severe solar weather that results can cause damage and power outages, something everybody can appreciate.

The students closed out the course as every Citizen Schools does, teaching back what they’d learned. Students were the guest producers of the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast, sharing what they’d learned and why space weather is important.

This reminded me to reconnect with Citizens Schools. The program is always looking for community volunteers. Even if you can't commit to teach a 10-week course, there are plenty of opportunities to give these students opportunities they might not otherwise have.


Tony Rice

Web Editor
Jodi Leese Glusco

Copyright 2017 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.