Nolan Science Teacher is Smithsonian Ambassador

Nolan teacher Karen Pierce ready to share learningGet Karey Pierce to talk about her summer and she sounds like a kid just home from camp.


The Nolan Middle School science teacher entering her 22nd year as an educator spent 17 days in Washington, D.C. becoming a Smithsonian Institution teacher ambassador.


Working – and playing – alongside a cohort of 32 chosen educators from across the nation, she received a behind-the-scenes experience in the National Air and Space Museum through the Teacher Innovator Institute.

Killeen science teacher at Air and Space Museum

It was super cool.


The group of educators ranging from fifth grade to high school teachers, as well as librarians and others, interacted with museum curators, past participants in the program and other experts.


“One of my favorite parts of it,” Pierce said, “was that we got to be there two hours early and go through the employee entrance. We had the whole museum to ourselves. We interacted and got to use the artifacts they have and talk about how we can use this in teaching.”


“I was with teachers just as excited as I am, asking ‘how can we use this,’ coming up with ideas together.”


The cool, fun, interactive lessons and experiments frequently led to an actual event or activity that put the lesson to the test.


They worked on the physics of making an object hover as long as possible like a drone. That led to some indoor skydiving, where they felt what they learned.


As a teacher ambassador, Pierce and her cohort have a two-year commitment to spread the word about their learning. Her own students, the rest of her school and teachers who learn from her will benefit for years to come.


Three participants from Texas schools are already scheduled to present at a conference in Houston next year based on a project they have planned.

Karey Pierce floats during summer training


Pierce will be leading students at Nolan Middle School in a sphero mini golf course challenge with the round, rolling programmable robotic spheres.


Using mostly cardboard to make a course and programming the robots to act like golf balls, students will use a variety of skills like coding, designing and art, while working as a team and having fun.

Nolan science teacher Karey Pierce


She and her fellow educators designed a course based on a moon of Jupiter in a similar four-hour project.


The teachers will continue to stay in touch, using the technology and online resources the Smithsonian provides and come up with solutions the museum’s science program will integrate into their education efforts.


Pierce is big on continuing education and finding exciting ways to stay motivated and come up with new tools to engage students.


She trained at NASA for a week last year. When she found out about the science program at the Smithsonian, she thought it looked like fun.


The rigorous application process included multiple essays and a video where she had to document how she would use the skills and resources to benefit a community.


“It was way more than fun,” she said. “We built and designed and grappled. We did a lot of challenges that we give our students and talked a lot about ‘how do we share this?’”


“I learned so much. There was such a huge bank of knowledge with the diverse backgrounds.”


The kind of inspiration that comes out of experiences like NASA and the Smithsonian generates a form of learning far more powerful than a traditional presentation.


“What I see is that they get excited about doing a lab and after the test some will remember, and some don’t. The long-term memory is just not really there,” the eighth-grade teacher said.


The kind of STEM learning, what some now call phenomenon learning builds experience into the classroom setting.


Once when teaching a weather concept, Pierce used a video about dolphins that sheltered in gulf-side resort hotels during Hurricane Katrina. That image of dolphins in a hotel stuck with students and helped them stay interested in the details of high- and low-pressure systems.


“They learn to problem solve and use teamwork and tend to stick to it and try again.”