MARQUETTE - NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston played host to 35 education undergraduates from across the country for one week in June, including one Northern Michigan University student.
"The week was just full of my mind being blown," said NMU elementary education major Kristen Bustrak of Brule, Wis. "All of these people (are) talking casually, 'Oh yeah, we're going to Mars.'"
Bustrak and the other students were accepted into NASA's highly competitive Pre-Service Teacher Institute, which has NASA professionals - including astronauts and rocket scientists - showing the country's newest teachers-to-be how to integrate NASA's work in space into lessons on science, technology, engineering and math.
Northern Michigan University senior elementary education major Kristen Bustrak, pictured here at center right, participates in an exercise led by NASA’s Director of the Expedition Earth and Beyond Program, Paige Graff (standing). A total of 35 undergraduate students from universities across the country spent one week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston learning how to integrate NASA’s work into lessons on science, engineering, technology and math. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Bustrak)
The STEM areas have seen a big push by both federal and state governments in the last few years as more 21st century jobs require employees to be highly skilled in those areas.
"It's very important from such a young age to feel confident in STEM and be interested in STEM and feel, 'Hey, I can do this,'" Bustrak said. "There's way too many students all around the world that feel, 'Oh I can't do that, it's too hard for me.' When you start at a young age, it instills confidence from the get go."
That's a lesson that Bustrak said she can apply to her own ideas about science.
"Science is hard for me, and in my application essay, I wrote about that, how there's always so many things to try and understand, and they don't click easy for me. I have to work really hard at it," Bustrak said. "But with the astronauts and the actual rocket scientists that I met, they were all so passionate about questioning and learning and discovering."
Bustrak and the other students spent the week surrounded by NASA's professionals and were given tours of the space center as well.
"The Johnson Space Center is mission control for everything to do with the astronauts ... When they say 'Houston, we have a problem,' that's the place," Bustrak said. "I got to see the old mission control (from the Apollo missions). That was super cool."
Bustrak said she learned a lot in her week at the space center and will take NASA's teaching style back to the classroom with her next semester as she begins her student teaching at a bilingual school in Green Bay, Wis.
"(I'll be) leading my students in discovering by asking questions, not just telling them information but asking them questions," she said. "'What do you think this is, why do you think this happens?' That's just an excellent way to learn, and as a teacher I want to teach science that way."
Bustrak and the other students also earned a one-of-a-kind qualification - they are certified to handle moon rocks.
"We're all certified to handle lunar and meteorite samples, so when I'm a teacher, I'll be able to borrow lunar and meteorite samples from NASA and bring them to my classroom," Bustrak said.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.