Volunteer Program Connects Underserved Students with Practical Science

Volunteer Program Connects Underserved Students with Practical Science

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.

NASA Volunteer Demystifies the World for Houston Students

6196461465_0204ebf89d_oDr. Baraquiel Reyna likes to make the world a little less mysterious. The Houston-based Citizen Teacher teaches “Wired Up,” an apprenticeship course about electricity and electronics. Every semester he demonstrates how simple adjustments to a helicopter motor can make a flashlight illuminate or a flying saucer fly. He always hears a resounding “Wow, that’s so cool!” from the students when he demonstrates this for the first time. And just like that the world is a little less mysterious. Dr. Reyna, Deputy Manager of Exploration Medical Capability at NASA, was recently recognized as the 2014 HENAAC (Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference) Most Promising Engineer at the Great Minds in STEM Conference, in part for his efforts to teach Houston middle schoolers about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) through Citizen Schools. For Dr. Reyna, volunteering with the organization centers on showing the class the possibilities that exist within electricity and their futures.

“Growing up in Houston, I had the benefit of all of my peers being the sons and daughters of ExxonMobil engineers. From a role model perspective, I had access to plenty of individuals who showed me what was possible and available,” said Dr. Reyna. “Students who are lower on the socio-economic scale and don’t have access to those role models don’t know they can grow up to work at NASA. I want to be a real-world role model and show students that someone who looks and talks like them can work at NASA.”

At the same time, Dr. Reyna recognizes that this role is not easy. Though teaching a class of middle schoolers can present challenges, he has worked to engage his audience by incorporating different kinds of learning activities including lessons that appeal to auditory, kinesthetic, and visual learners. “Taking an abstract thought and showing it physically only reinforces the lesson. The more senses you can use the better you will retain information.”

And it’s not only about the students retaining the information now but also having the tools to follow up on their interests after the apprenticeship is over. “I’ve had to evolve my content to make sure that I was appealing to students’ interests while making sure that students understand how to grow their interests and what they need to do to take that interest to the next step.”

We congratulate Dr. Reyna on his HENAACC award and thank him for taking some of the mysteries out of life for Houston middle schoolers by showing them what’s possible.