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Time to Change the Paradigm of STEM Learning

Aug 18, 2014   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz  //  No Comments

We’ve struggled for a very long time to find the answer to why students aren’t interested in science and math. The usual response I get from students when I ask them how do they like their science or math class is, “It’s too hard or it’s too boring.” After asking this question thousands of times to students in various grades from primary to high school, I am beginning to understand the problem.

We don’t make STEM learning fun, we don’t make STEM learning exciting, and we don’t make STEM learning engaging. I’ve said for the last ten years that STEM is the new buzz word. You can’t go to any science conference today and not have sessions devoted to STEM. In many cases, the entire conference is a STEM conference. And what do you see there? The same vendors and publishers you saw years ago at the same conferences with, in many cases, the same products and books that have been updated to reflect the current science and technology. Chemistry is chemistry as a class and even I found chemistry not fun when I was in high school. Now I understand why. My chemistry teacher was not only boring but he could care less about engaging us in doing chemistry. You can’t learn chemistry or biology or physics from a textbook yet in many schools that’s just how the students are expected to learn. Read the chapter and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.

How exciting is that? Not at all. It doesn’t matter about the shortage of qualified STEM graduates and that the biggest opportunities for our students in future career fields is in STEM. We lose them before we can really capture and engage them to love STEM. To do this however, we have to change the paradigm of how we teach STEM and quit calling science STEM or technology STEM or mathematics STEM just because these subjects are part of the acronym. You have to take everything, including the engineering component and mash it up into fun learning that still meets the standards and hopefully will increase standardized test results. You also have to capture a child’s imagination and creativity on an individual level one student at a time.

As educators, we too often don’t think to ask students what they want to learn in a STEM class or what projects, research, investigations, coding, game or webdesign, etc. they would like to take on. We have the standards and we have to teach to those benchmarks and we have textbooks with content and lessons, and activities anyway so why would we want to deviate from what we’ve been doing in the past?

Because. This is an answer I used to give my son all the time. Very simple yet very powerful. Here is my list of reasons that would follow:

1. We can’t afford not to.
2. It’s time to flip the classroom and not just with technology.
3. “What If” is the most basic question of human existence and one that has fostered invention and innovation since the dawn of time.
4. Put engineering in or don’t call it STEM. It can be STM or S or T or M but not STEM unless you have engineering lessons and activities in your lessons as well.
5. Don’t follow what everyone else is doing. As a teacher, be your own creative resource and step out of the box.
6. You have to be a lifelong learner and learn the hard stuff to.
7. Play more. My motto has always been, “If I’m not having fun you aren’t either.”
8. Don’t try, do.

As we prepare for another school year, take these words of wisdom into your classroom and be the change that you want to see in your students. Smile, laugh, engage, captivate, motivate, and inspire. Have a great start to your STEM school year.

NASA’s Next Giant Leap: Comic-Con 2014

Aug 7, 2014   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz, NASA, The Launch Pad  //  No Comments

It’s now official.  When NASA comes to do a panel at Comic-Con, the once geeky comic book, action figure, and superhero film convention where if you aren’t dressed up as some character, person, or alien from popular comic fiction, you’re not cool.  I didn’t make it to Comic-Con this year and missed this panel.  After watching this mix of NASA planetary science and engineering and the commentary/questions from the Comic-Con panel facilitator Seth Green, I realized that STEM has moved from the textbooks, the SmartBoards, the classrooms, and even the iPads (that can be seen in the video held high to record the panel) to a new audience of people.

OK, maybe not a totally new audience.  The people who attend Comic-Con are serious about their comics, the art, the movies, the collectibles, the celebrities, the robots, and the science.  It’s cool (yes I said cool) to hear the enthusiasm of Seth in questioning the panel that included NASA astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Mike Fincke, NASA Planetary scientist Dr. Jim Green, and “Mohawk Guy” Bobak Ferdowsi ( (Seth) ” You landed a car on Mars!”) It’s also a great way to give NASA exposure beyond the traditional press conferences, the educational webinars, and even the NASA web portal.  The panel marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and it is great to see these guys talking about planetary exploration, space, dreaming of becoming an astronaut, planning the next Mars robotic rover mission, 3-D printing, building habitats on Mars, and the future of exploring the final frontier. 

The wonderful folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are the genius minds behind this. The conversation of space exploration and engineering innovation and what we can look forward to for the next 45 years is fantastic.  Questions from the children are priceless especially the little girl who asked Buzz Aldrin, “What made you want to go to space?  What inspired you?” Watch the panel, enjoy, and be inspired!

A New Paradigm

Jan 28, 2014   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz  //  No Comments

While working on a new project, I heard someone on television mention China and I thought about a truly wonderful experience I had with a group of young people when educational technology was in its emerging phase. This post is from my Innovate & Educate blog and was written in June 2010.

Welcome to the Innovation Education blog. Twenty years ago when I made the leap from corporate America to education I had one goal in mind, to share the experiences I had learned in business and open up new ideas and career options for my students. Many of us have done innovation centered education projects in our classrooms without realizing that was what we were doing. In 1999, I gathered a group of students to participate in the AT&T Virtual Classroom Contest. Each virtual classroom was comprised of three schools from different countries. Our partner schools came from Canada and Japan. Everyday after school, my students would come into the computer lab and work on our submission. The students had to create a collaborative website with an educational focus and we had to use technology tools. We had the old school version of Skype, Cu-See-Me, the newest Macintosh computers with Adobe

PhotoShop and Illustrator, and Macromedia Flash, which was taking the Internet to a netvision  new level of animation.  After discussing the project for a month, we decided to create  an online television station.

Thus NetVision was born. The project was a combination of videos shot by students in each school and combined into unique channels that would be targeted to teenagers. We had a fashion channel, a sports channel, a news channel, and a cooking channel. Content ranged from learning how Sumo wrestlers train, cooking Creole, fashion trends, music, and the most interesting, a day-in-the-life of a teenager focusing on how while we all came from different cultures, backgrounds, and countries teenagers were basically all the same.

The innovation here is there was an opportunity for three diverse groups of students to change the way teenagers could access and receive information, connect with other teens across the world, and collaborate on new ideas and technologies. VC_46 placed third in the secondary category and I was fortunate to travel to Hong Kong to participate in the awards ceremony and spend a week sharing practices and ideas with educators from around the world. Later in the spring of 2000, after the contest was over, our Canadian partners visited our school and we had a huge celebration. That was the end of Netvision but it didn’t have to stop when the contest was over.

It was a great experience for me and my students. Most of the students who worked on the project graduated that year. AT&T pulled out of the Virtual Classroom Contest in 2000 and it was taken over by a non-profit company in 2003. NetVision had incredible possibilities and if some of the students, and teachers (me included), had approached the project after the contest as an opportunity to innovate in the emerging area of streaming video on the Web, I probably would not be sitting here writing this blog. NetVision could have been the beta version of YouTube. We could have even revolutionized a new trend, social media!

I don’t believe in missed opportunities and someone once told me that there are no new ideas. People do re-invent the wheel but they don’t change it totally, they just find innovative ways to make it better. Today, innovation used in context with education is the new buzz. Many will say innovation centered education is nothing more than Project Based Learning (PBL) but if you examine what the word innovate means you will discover that it is much more. Websters definition of innovate is:

Transitive Verb

1. to introduce as or as if new

2 archaic : to effect a change in;

Intransitive verb

3. to make changes : do something in a new way, to introduce as or as if new

When we look at the way we deliver educational content, studies have shown that we have not fundamentally changed our practice in several hundred years. Our students still sit in classes at desks for a specified amount of time each day, use textbooks, complete worksheets, and do homework. Teachers lecture, explain, discuss, and demonstrate concepts and skills that measure learning by students achieving skills at benchmark grades and showing proficiency at or above each grade level based on local, state, and national learning standards.

Passing tests is one thing. Equipping our young people with the skills they will need to effect change in our society, in developing the products we use, in our expanding global economy, re-building our country’s highways and transportation infrastructure, and in the way we discover the unknown cannot be done in the traditional way of textbooks and worksheets. It is therefore imperative that a paradigm shift in the way we teach and in the way our students learn occurs.


Giving Thanks to Space, Students, & the Importance of Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators

Nov 28, 2013   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz  //  No Comments

Happy Thanksgiving! I can’t think of a better way to spend my Thanksgiving morning than responding to my Twitter family and discovering wonderful projects that will not only move us forward in our journey into space exploration but inspire young people to realize these are really cool careers and there has never been a bigger opportunity for anyone interested in anything space related to have a chance to be part of the next exploration frontier.

Check out this fantastic group of students from Canada, @SpaceConcordia, and the work they are doing. They won the Canadian Satellite Space Design Challenge in 2012 and they are now working on a satellite that can heal itself if it is damaged in space for the competition this year. These are the kinds of innovations that will be needed as we begin to plan for human exploration into space whether it is low Earth orbit, in our Solar System, or beyond. Materials science is an area of STEM that I have begun to do work in with my educational outreach and while designing, building, and prototyping robots, moonbuggys, race cars, and rockets is always fun, the materials they are made out of are key to these mechanical creations be successful.

They have three days to go on their Kickstarter campaign. I’ve made a contribution because I believe that it will take all of us who work in STEM education outreach, the space industry on all continents, and the forward thinkers who never believe in the word can’t but find a way to be able to prove they can. I’ve been blessed over the years to have some wonderful people, government agencies, corporations, and non-profits support my dreams in working with students in urban communities to realize they can dream big and the sky is no longer the limit.

STEM & The City

Jul 8, 2013   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz  //  No Comments

Today is the start of our third year of NASA Summer of Innovation programming. We were awarded a second year mini-grant to continue our “There’s An App for That!” STEM program. This year we will be working with several community partners and Chicago Public School summer programs to introduce programming and engineering to middle school and rising 9th graders.

Thirteen years ago NASA came to Chicago to inspire and ignite the imaginations of K-12 students in Chicago Public Schools. SEMAA (Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy) was a program that was literally out of this world. Chicago students had an opportunity to learn about space, aeronautics, engineering, design, our Solar System, our planet, and concepts that we just don’t teach at the middle school level about our Moon, our Sun, and the excitement of planetary exploration as the final frontier.

This year we thank NASA for allowing us to continue our work with inner city youth to inspire them to say, “Wow!” I have done my intro activity on the Universe hundreds of times with students, teachers, and adult participants. I have been on a personal fact-finding mission for the last eight years in putting my finger on where the disconnect occurs with students either loving or hating science and math. Sometimes these conversations were casual with students in the classroom and others were part of programs or workshops I conducted. This year I am going to add a new twist by posting what the young people say and visualize about our Universe, our Solar System, our Moon, our Sun, and most importantly the planet on which we live.

Misconceptions are hard to overcome because once we are told or make our own assumptions about science it is hard for us to change what we thought was true. Managing the SEMAA program in Chicago was a very special time in my life. As an educator, I know .we impact the lives and imaginations of our students but in most cases we never understand the depth of what we have accomplished. A year ago a man came up to me at a Chicago Public School board meeting and said hello. He then went on to tell me his granddaughter had been part of the SEMAA program and that she was now in college studying engineering. “She talks about you all of the time,” he said. She also tells her friends how coming to those SEMAA classes made her want to study science and engineering.” He continued to recount some of the more interesting things about the program as well as how I wore every hat under the Sun but as he talked I remembered his granddaughter and while we did not track our students I felt incredibly happy that SEMAA had planted a seed for her that she continued to cultivate.

And that’s what it’s all about. Planting seeds and engaging young people in learning STEM in ways that are non-traditional and fun. We have got to change the landscape of what was and what is to what can be. We need more girls in science and engineering and the classrooms, workplaces, and boardrooms need to reflect this as well. I talk to many female engineering students at IIT where our FIRST Robotics team is located and they all say the same thing. There are far too few females in their classes but they hold their own. We need more ethnic diversity as well. We can make this happen but it will take the collective work of many along with a determination to make the changes necessary one child at a time.

This is my mission and I am proud to accept and continue the challenge of “Inspiring the Next Generation of Explorers as Only NASA Can!

The Cost of Seeing the Universe

May 1, 2013   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz  //  No Comments

Herschel space observatory image of M31

I have always had a fondness of looking at images of stars, galaxies, and planets. In 2003, when I began working as the lead technology instructor for the Saturday Academy for Space Science at Chicago State University, I remember how amazed I was to see so many beautiful images of objects in the Universe that had been taken by the Hubble Telescope and then those that we and the students took with telescopes that are linked to the Hands-on-Universe project. Hearing the news Monday that the Herschel space observatory had closed its eyes for good filled me with sadness. While I had always been in love with the stars, the years I spent teaching in SASS solidified the awe I felt every time I looked up to the sky and saw the Milky Way. I became an amateur astronomer without realizing it and for the last ten years I have been drawn into the magic of using telescopes to see things that lie far, far, away from Earth.

When the Herschel space observatory was launched in May of 2008, its telescope and instrumentation allowed us to see the Universe in far-infrared light and gathered over 35,000 images, some as distant as the Andromeda Galaxy which lies 2.5 million light years from our Milky Way, since it began surveying the heavens. A project of ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre, with heavy support from NASA, Herschel’s cost to date is 1.4 billion. With the current state of the government sequestration and people who remain vocal that this amount of money could be better spent on programs here on Earth, the depletion of the liquid helium that kept the instruments at a temperature near absolute zero has run out. Seeing far away has far reaching requirements and as there was no way to do a liquid helium re-supply mission to Herschel it was inevitable that the mission would end. For nearly five years, Herschel has allowed us to see stars being born, galactic dust, the Orion Nebula as never seen before, and a host of galaxies near and far from us.

While the mission has ended, the science and discoveries we will glean from the images will allow us to continue to unlock the secrets and mysteries of the Universe. Let us all take a moment the next time we look up to the sky and thank the eyes of the Herschel space observatory for five years of letting us see the Universe through its eyes.

Bon Voyage!

We <3 Robots

Apr 14, 2013   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz, STEM Girls  //  No Comments

We build robots! We love them and they love us! FRC Team 2725, The Ice Princesses, are recruiting new members for the team. The Museum of Science & Industry’s Robot Block Party is the cool place to be Sunday, April 14. We’ll there with our 2013 robot, Sparkle! Stop by, say hello, and learn how girls build incredible robots!

Dec 31, 2012   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz  //  No Comments

In 2012 we said goodbye to Sally Ride, the first woman in space and as we bring 2012 to an end I could see no better way to end it than with this tour of the International Space Station with Expedition 33 commander, Suni Williams.  Williams led the Expedition 33 mission and performed three spacewalks with fellow astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.  Williams holds the record holder for a female astronaut with the most time logged in spacewalks. Girls around the world as you watch her tour the ISS, may you all be inspired to one day look down on the Earth from the Cupola of the ISS or from a space craft that will have humans going to the ISS and beyond.  The tour is not only informative about the ISS and how astronauts live and work there, but she shares some interesting personal anecdotes as well.  She loves Fluffernutters!


Christmas Presents from the Solar System!

Dec 28, 2012   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz  //  No Comments

Merry Christmas! This time of year is always nostalgic for me and I love the spirit of what the Christmas Season means more than the material side that has us flocking to malls, online sites, jewelry stores, and even car dealerships to find the perfect present for everyone on our Christmas list. My grandmother was born on December 25th and celebrating her birthday on Christmas day always was an extra special gift for me.

As I thought about my best Christmases and the gifts I cherished the most while growing up, I seemed to come back time and time again to the microscope set my father gave me one year and the 1954 American Flyer Train that always found its way under our Christmas Tree every December. The microscope was a gift that helped confirm my dream that one day I would be a doctor and learning how to use it and see the wonders of things too small to view with the naked eye. This would begin my path of learning towards a career in medicine. The train made no connections in my mind with transportation or engineering, either electrical or mechanical, I just thought it was cool. My mother, on the other hand, thought both gifts were for boys and couldn’t wrap her mind around what would motivate my father to give me a microscope that had me pricking my finger over and over and looking at my own cells for hours or a train no less that required me to put lengths of track together and sit on the floor to operate the transformer that powered the train on its course.

Now that I am immersed in science and creating programs to inspire more girls to develop a love for science, I think about how our perceptions on gender affect whether girls are steered towards math and science or deflected away from it. My mother thought I should be given dolls and Easy Bake Ovens. My father, whether he was aware or not, supported my dream of doing science. I didn’t get bit by the science bug at school but by reading and going to The Museum of Science and Industry and making trips with my grandmother to Dr. Prince’s office on Cottage Grove Avenue. Dr. Prince wore a white lab coat and to get to his examination room you had to go through his office. It was the most disorganized place I’d ever seen and I think in some ways I wanted to be a doctor so I could treat people in an office that was neat, organized, and promoted healing. He had a large leather sofa in his office that I remember after being examined or waiting for my grandmother I would sit on and watch the elevated trains go by.

A little girl with a big dream. That was me and while I let that dream go in college I never stopped loving science. Today as I go around and share the wonders of the Solar System, engineering projects and competitions, math challenges, environmental awareness, etc. I look in the faces of students and I often see my dreams reflected in their eyes. We have more tools, more access, and a greater push towards diversity today than we had four decades ago. Opportunities for girls as well boys, all populations that are underrepresented and under-served in STEM, are all around us. This Christmas I thought I would share some of the gifts that have come my way this year with all of my students, colleagues, friends, parents, and everyone who shares a love of science and looking to the skies.

Peace and Love to you all and have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The 2011 Lunar Eclipse was technically at the end of last year, but it was spectacular nonetheless.  The pictures were taken by a friend of mine who works at the planetarium in Tokyo and hosts the monthly Liveshows of the night sky at Yerkes Observatory with my friend and colleague Vivian Hoette. This eclipse happened one day before my mother’s birthday.  Her light, just as that reflected from the Moon, continues to shine on us all!

December 10, 2011 Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse Dec 10, 2011 Image courtesy of Kimouru

Annular Eclipse

Annular Exlipse

May20th, 2012 Annular

Eclipsein Chicago

All we were able to see
in Chicago.

This was a strikingly beautiful event on May 20th, 2012. I watched from my computer and telescopes from An annular eclipse occurs when the moon blocks out the center of the sun, leaving a glowing ring called an annulus around the moon’s dark silhouette. The glow from the ring was referred to by many media outlets as a “Ring of Fire.”


The Transit of Venus

All eyes were focused on the sky on June 5, 2012 as Venus made her transit across our Sun. It was an event that none of us will ever see again in our lifetime making it one of the truly once-in-a-lifetime events. I spent the day on the lawn of Yerkes Observatory in my volunteer role as a NASA Solar System Ambassador as well as a Stars@Yerkes Teacher Leader and assisted visitors in viewing Venus through sunscopes, solar viewing glasses, and some pretty low-tech ways to watch the transit as well. Inside there was live telescope viewing thanks to the Yerkes connection to a network of telescopes around the world. If you missed it or just want to experience it again, enjoy!

Projected Image of the Transit of Venus - Low Tech Viewing

A safe, low tech, way to watch the transit of Venus. Of course, your arm would get very tired!

Transit of Venus

Venus in Transit. Photo Credit NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

Wathcing the Transit of Venus

Educational stations for family engagement included safe viewing through solar glasses.









What Lies Beyond?

Voyager 1

Voyager leaves our
Solar System

On September 10, 2012, Voyager 1 left our Solar system. Passing Jupiter in 1979 on a mission to explore the outer planets, Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object in space. It is still transmitting data and scientists are learning more about our Heliosphere as
Voyager continues its journey in space.






The Mayan Calendar ends Dec 21, 2012: Thus So Does the World?

Well the predictions from doomsayers that the world would come to an end on December 21, 2012 proved that we lived another day and will live many more to come.  Yes, the Mayan’s were great

Earth Disaster

Would this be the end?

astronomers and what they left behind for us to try and figure out has shed an understanding that we as humans have always had a link to the heavens regardless of what culture we belong to.  As so many of my students were talking about the end of the world, I thought it would be a good project for them to do some authentic research to see if any of the predictions including Earth burning up from a gigantic solar flare to the galactic alignment could hold any truth.  When they discovered that it looked like we’d be here on Friday, Dec. 21th, the surrounding veil of impending doom lifted and they could then tell other students, “No, the world will not end on December 21st, but……..”

They learned too how the Sun actually looks thanks to NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and I don’t think they will ever look at the Sun in the same way again and they also learned about the Winter Equinox which really did occur on December 21st!Yes, they learned that a giant asteroid, Apophis, which is big enough to cause planetary extinction of all life as we know it, is heading towards Earth but it will be several years before we have to worry and hopefully if its trajectory stays course with Earth, some brilliant mind will have figured out a way to blow it up or deflect it by then.  My son keeps saying that Earth needs a Superman.

There were the meteor showers too that delight us every year and will be back in 2013.   And all doomsayers aside, we did have our own share of natural tragedies with multiple tornadoes in the Midwest during the spring,  unprecedented heat across all of the United States this summer, and the devastation and destruction of hurricane Sandy in November.  Despite all of this, we are resilient.  As I sit here writing this, a gentle snow is finally falling outside.  More lake effect than the storms that are traveling East and a pavement void of at least 6″ of snow in Chicago in December is just about unheard of.

So in 2013, keep your heads to the sky and marvel in the presents our Solar System gives us free of charge and do one inspiring thing everyday for you never know whose life you may change by just being you!




What a Sun!

Oct 12, 2012   //   by pgreyer   //   Latest Buzz  //  No Comments

Camilla SDO posted this fantastic video about the Sun.