NEW HAVEN — Educators in Mason County return to their classrooms in less than a month, but one New Haven Elementary School teacher is finding it hard to come down from the clouds.
Rhonda Tennant, a fourth grade teacher, was one of 204 teachers from all 50 states and 49 countries to attend the “Honeywell Educators at Space Academy” program this summer. Held at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., Tennant was selected from more than 1,000 applicants from all over the world.
“Without a doubt, the space camp experience represents the ultimate in teacher professional development,” Tennant said. “I can’t think of any class or training that comes close to equaling the value of this five-day educational experience.”
All selected teachers attended the program on full scholarships from the Honeywell Corporation, according to Tennant. She added the goal of the program is to strengthen educators in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum.
Tennant said the group participated in hands-on classroom activities, such as building and launching rockets, conducting simulated lunar and shuttle missions, and undergoing training similar to that which NASA astronauts experience. The activities were physically demanding, with days beginning at 7 a.m. and often going until 9 or 10 p.m.
“Several of the ‘simulated’ training sessions took me outside my comfort zone,” Tennant admitted. “I’m not a strong swimmer, and I nearly pass out at any degree of height.”
Tennant said the teachers could “opt out” of any event, but when it was her turn, she stepped up without hesitation.
“I considered myself blessed to have been chosen for this elite educational opportunity, so I refused to allow fear to be an option,” she said. “It was important to me that I represent our state well because I didn’t want to feed into the negative stereotype that some people have of West Virginians.”
Tennant did admit, however, that when she first arrived at camp, she tried to “lay low.”
“I decided that I would lay low, and cautiously watch and learn from a distance,” the teacher said. “However, to my surprise, my very first assignment was second in command — pilot of a space shuttle mission.”
While at the academy, Tennant had the opportunity to meet three American astronauts and hear their tales. She added she is hoping the incoming fourth graders at New Haven will be able to Skype with astronaut Don Thomas this year in her classroom.
“Contrary to what many people believe, space travel for Americans is still alive,” Tennant said. “In the not too distant future, NASA has plans for a colony on the moon, where astronauts will live for months at a time. And, a flight to Mars is in the works.”
Another highlight of Tennant’s week was getting to meet West Virginia author Homer Hickam Jr. The teachers all received autographed copies of his book, “Rocket Boys,” which later led to the movie, “October Sky.” Hickam, along with being an author, is also a retired aeronautics engineer for NASA and a current paleontologist.
As a result of the space academy, Tennant said she will be a better equipped and more enthusiastic educator, and added she can’t wait to incorporate some of the new ideas into her curriculum. Until school begins, however, she will be speaking to area civic groups about her adventure.