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Small Staff has Big Impact Showing How NASA Can Engage Students
by Staff Writers
Houston TX (SPX) Mar 22, 2015

Staff of the Educator Resource Center at Space Center Houston pose with some of the NASA educational content they provide to thousands of teachers each year. From left are volunteers Susana Udengaard, Marilyn Plett and Dottie Evans and ERC Manager Elaine Lapka. For a larger version of this image please go here.

Just left of the Space Shuttle flight deck, there's a room that for more than 17 years has helped tens of thousands of teachers use NASA to inspire hundreds of thousands of students in science, technology, engineering and math.

The Educator Resource Center at Space Center Houston is a quiet, library-like place, staffed by only one part-time educator and a handful of volunteers, but it helped more than 4,000 teachers last year alone. Elaine Lapka, a former CCISD gifted and talented teacher, serves as its central nervous system.

She and a staff of five volunteers are the conductors to NASA educator guides, lesson plans, lithographs and an ever-growing array of electronic resources for teachers both formal and informal.

"As a teacher, I am so proud of what we have to offer," Lapka said. "I can see these are great materials because they are unique, and, an important aspect for all teachers, they are free, which really makes them doubly valuable."

Signs lead up to the facility from the SCH lobby. It is located up two flights of stairs, adjacent to the flight deck of the indoor shuttle mockup. It is a little out of the way but it is a must-do for teachers. Many are repeat customers. Others are first time visitors or callers or e-mailers. Some of the best customers are teachers of teachers, college faculty that use the NASA materials to provide to their aspiring education major students.

"We have a number of professors who make the ERC basically a part of their course - their students have to come and find out about it and what we offer," Lapka said.

"They realize this is an ideal thing for them. Because when you first get out of school with your degree and you have your first teaching job, you don't have a big pile of money to go out and buy stuff. It is important to have a resource to use and a person to contact to get reliable things that are aligned with standards that will help."

The Educator Resource Center is a JSC office that is run by Space Center Houston. It is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays.

"I couldn't do my job without the volunteers, and I can't say enough about how great they are," she said. "There is no way I could serve thousands of teachers by myself."

Lapka has worked at the ERC for 10 years. Volunteer Susana Udengaard has helped out there since it started, and she has volunteered at Space Center Houston since it opened in 1994.

"I enjoy volunteering," Udengaard said. "It is a way of using my skills and having fun while doing something worthwhile. Every teacher we help is different and there are new things every day. It is very rewarding."

Volunteers encompass a variety of skills. They support the computer equipment, staff teacher resource tables at events, respond to inquiries and perform dozens of other jobs.

"We do whatever needs to be done," Udengaard said. "This is really a neat group of people and we get along well, kind of like family."

The resources needed by teachers are changing as educational technology changes, and Lapka has an obvious passion to keep pace. Teachers want almost entirely digital content now. Many school districts have invested extensively in mobile devices and expect teachers to find engaging ways to use them.

Lapka has recently addressed that objective by including not only NASA interactives and mobile apps in workshops but also a commercially available app to insert NASA content into "augmented reality."

"You can use your tablet or smart phone with this app to make inserted NASA content interactive," Lapka explained.

"I introduced it at my teacher workshops last year and it has been extremely well received. NASA has tons of multimedia content that can be used with it. Teachers also appreciate applications adjustable to their goals rather than apps that can only be used in a preprogrammed fashion."

The inspiration Lapka and her staff sow is evident in the multitude of thanks they receive. Letters of gratitude come often, and they, better than anything, explain the impact of the ERC in their expressions:

From a high school teacher: "I am so happy to know that I can turn to you for help to make my lessons on space science amazing for my students."

From a middle school teacher: "It is nice to get explanations from someone who really loves what they do."

From an elementary teacher: "You have truly changed lives."

Although the majority of their clients are U.S. teachers, the ERC has a worldwide impact. On a typical week, they may deal with clients from 10 different nations.

They help teachers, but they also sometimes answer mail from students. Those letters range from requests for help with a class project to unsolicited suggestions, including detailed stick-figure drawings in pencil, about how Earth can be kept safe from stray asteroids. And there may be the occasional JSC employee looking for help in preparing an activity to do and an activity to leave with the teacher when planning outreach to a classroom. They turn no one away.

"We help anybody that opens that door. When you give people information, you never know where it is going to go," Lapka said.

"These are things that I know inspire and engage people in science, technology, engineering and math, whether they are a teacher in need of a new approach or a student in need of a new perspective."

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