Opening the world of space science and technology to the nation’s students

September 25, 2012

Marchelle Canright has spent her decades-long career helping NASA teach students from kindergarten through 12th grade about the wonders of the universe. In her role overseeing elementary and secondary education programs, she calls on some of the agency’s more than 18,000 scientists, engineers, astronauts, educators and professionals to help educate students, also looking for opportunities to develop products that NASA educational specialists can use.

Canright said her experience as a teacher before joining NASA helps her understand the needs of the education community and how to demonstrate to the classroom teacher the relevance of the agency’s work.

“It’s the perfect place to be for anyone who is at heart an educator,” she said. “NASA has an ability to inspire and re-ignite a spark in the nation, if we can leverage the talents found in every corner of our agency.”

Over the next three-quarters of a year, however, Canright will carry out a one-year assignment serving as executive to a new high-level Executive Council, chaired by the administrator, as top NASA officials chart new policies and programs and make significant decisions on strategic direction.

“They are looking at the big picture and where decisions need to be made,” said Canright, who works in the administrator’s Office of Agency Council Staff. “And I am learning more topics in more detail than I could have imagined.” That can only help Canright when she returns to her role overseeing education programs.


(Devin Miller/The Partnership for Public Service)

The agency delivers lessons to students in myriad ways. It works through dozens of science museums, universities and other institutions whose mission is to educate the community. And, Canright explores the best digital methods for delivering interesting educational material, whether through webcasting, videoconferencing or another telepresence technique.

In addition, NASA has 10 facilities around the country doing research on jet propulsion, space flight, aeronautics and more, all of which can contribute to class lessons.

In the past several years, the agency has become focused on teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Schools might want NASA employees to come and help students with reading, but the agency would rather focus on science content, Canright said. “That’s always been the case but we’re calling it out now, trying to elevate that further.”

Lessons that Canright might introduce to classrooms in the future is being decided at the agency’s top levels now as NASA retools for the future and, in her temporary assignment, Canright has an up-close look at those issue areas. She is helping to solicit, vet and prepare information for the Executive Council’s consideration, including on Mars research, asteroids, climate change, earth science, aeronautics and other areas involving flight and the cosmos.

Now that the rover has successfully landed on Mars, for instance, the council could decide on whether to send a robotic mission to the planet in 2018 or 2020, said David P. Radzanowski, NASA’s chief of staff. “Or what asteroid would we send a spacecraft to.”

These are tough issues being decided, Radzanowski said, ones that won’t be supported unanimously. Canright’s ability to provide the council with good information is essential.

“She is ensuring it’s a transparent process and that all the facts are on the table to make the best decisions they can,” Radzanowski said. “She’s incredibly organized and very inclusive. That’s a great combination.”

The executive council also seeks to align NASA’s work with White House priorities for creating small business opportunities, enhancing innovation and enabling commercialization of space activities. And, it addresses the more mundane, tethered-to-earth issues such as budgets, agency organization and who is responsible for upcoming missions.

Canright is at heart an educator. She found her calling while working at a maximum security facility for high-risk youth when she was just a teenager herself. It was part of an outreach program run by her church. She was struck by the “incredible talent of these young men who came from poor backgrounds,” who, for whatever reason, ended up locked up.

She said she switched from thinking about a career in medicine to one in education and public service so she could reach young people early. “I wanted to help them see what was possible, help them believe that despite where they live or their environment that they could achieve something.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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