Cincinnati STEM Teacher Uses Space Camp Training to Inspire Students

Miami graduate Jackie O'Brien poses for a picture in space suit
Miami graduate Jackie O'Brien poses for a picture in space suit

James M. Loy, Miami University

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When a colleague suggested she apply for the prestigious and extremely selective Honeywell Educators Space Camp program, she thought it might be a long shot. But a fear of failure is not something that bothers Jackie O’Brien.

“I thought there is no way they are going to accept me for this, but I thought we’ll try it,” she says. 

A graduate of Miami University’s College of Education, Health and Society, O’Brien is an educator at Indian Hill Elementary School in Cincinnati, where she is currently creating a new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum. Jackie O'Brien sits in cockpit of space shuttle

This is also where she regularly teaches 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders about the importance of STEM, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and, yes, even the merits of failure.

“A big part of my class is talking about failure and knowing it won’t always be right the first time you do it,” O’Brien says. “But it is all about the perseverance. Asking why it doesn’t work and questioning what could be done differently. That is the most important idea that I want my students to walk away with.”

So when the chance to attend space camp arose, she didn’t hesitate. She took a chance and gave it the best effort she could. 

And it turns out, and perhaps not surprisingly, that Honeywell was also looking for the same kind of perseverance and grit and passion for science that O’Brien wants her own young students to embrace. “When I got the acceptance letter I was over the moon!” she says.

And for a pretty good reason too.

Every year, Honeywell Educators Space Camp receives over 3,000 applications from a global audience of teachers who all hope to be among the few selected to join the intensive program. 

O’Brien, in fact, was one of just 108 teachers from 45 states and 33 countries who also attended the U.S. Space and Rocket Center during her week-long visit, which included real astronaut training, lab experiments, numerous scenario-based simulated space missions, and much more.

The entire program is designed around one goal: To help educators like O’Brien create even more dynamic and engaging science-based learning environments within their own classrooms back home. 

Jackie O'Brien poses in a group photo with replica rocket “I tried out the multi-axis trainer to simulate zero-gravity in space and went on simulated space missions to Mars and the Moon,” she explains. “And on top of all that, there were a lot of teacher resources and lessons that we could then bring back to our schools and do with our students.” 

Honeywell’s space camp takes the idea of professional development to an entirely new level. The networking opportunities are tremendous as well, especially considering the breath of international perspectives O’Brien also gained by meeting other passionate STEM teachers from all around the world.

“Being able to talk to other educators about their educational system, learn more about their culture, and hear about how STEM is taught was absolutely incredible,” O’Brien says. “I’ve gained a professional learning community of STEM educators from around the world. It’s a great way to stay connected, collaborate, and share STEM resources.”

So now, after her intensive and “life changing” training, O’Brien is back home again and she’s ready to use her array of new educational tools and resources to continue improving her new STEM curriculum by introducing more Earth and Space Science standards to enrich classroom project.

Plus, after being interviewed by a leading Cincinnati TV station, she’s also become somewhat of a local science celebrity. 

Jackie O'Brien poses with American Flag “The students would say, ‘Ms. O’Brien, I saw you on the news!’” she says. “That was pretty neat. And during STEM on Fridays, I’ll wear my blue flight suit that I got at Space Camp. I call it ‘Flight Suit Friday.’ The students love looking at the patches on the suit and always ask to wear the flight suit. It is fun. They enjoy it.”  

But more importantly, she says, is that they are also starting to really enjoy science. And the newfound excitement and enthusiasm she’s generating is directly related to her space camp experience, which students also benefit from simply by being in her class.

“There are about 475 students in my building and I truly love working with my students and sharing my passion about STEM,” says O’Brien. “An individual student can go to Space Camp and have an absolutely amazing experience. But as an educator, I was able to go to Space Camp and come back to school and share the experience with all of the students that I teach. I’m able extend my knowledge.

“It has that ripple effect,” she says.