As a kid growing up in Albuquerque, Sheila Griffin had long dreamed of being an astronaut.
After all, this was once a kid who watched her family’s VHS tape of “Space Camp” until she “broke it;” later, a “Space Camp” tape rented from Blockbuster suffered the same fate.
In June, she found herself at Space Camp, and although no longer a kid at age 38, she had the honor and privilege of being among 224 teachers — coming from 45 states and territories, and 35 countries — attending the annual Honeywell Educators at Space Academy program at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The teachers participated in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) inspired activities during one of the two five-day programs held two consecutive weeks in June.
“Honeywell gave me the opportunity to fulfill one my greatest childhood dreams, altering the trajectory of my career path,” Griffin said.
Fortunately, she said, “I was never that person that lost my dream.”
Truthfully, that career path, which includes hopes of being an astronaut, centers around education and being the owner and curriculum coordinator at LEAP International Montessori School in Rio Rancho.
“I now am absolutely committed to bringing more STEAM-based (the A stands for arts) education to New Mexico and plan to do so through building a Montessori Adolescent Program that is balanced between STEAM and the humanities,” Griffin wrote in an exit paper for Space Camp. “Much of this is actually what we already do, but after this experience, I feel like I have more of a direction and focus, as well as applicable skills to responsibly use and apply technology into my classroom and school.”
Griffin has long been an overachiever, graduating Sandia High School earlier than her peers and, she says, “at age 16, I traveled the world.” She also traveled college campuses, attending eight altogether, including the University of New Mexico and TVI (now Central New Mexico Community College), Mesa Community College in San Diego, Notre Dame University Australia and the University of Alaska Southeast, where she finally graduated.
“I had the idea I was going to change the educational system,” she said, “and once I learned the advanced Montessori method, it changed the trajectory of my life.”
LEAP has been in Rio Rancho for three years; she expects to have at least 35 students, ages 3-12, when the fall semester begins, with room for as many as 46.
“I want to build a larger school, have pre-K through high school (instruction),” she said.
How did she get to Space Camp?
“I had a previous student’s parent recommend that I apply for the program,” Griffin explained. “I knew that it was competitive and so I honestly did not expect to win the scholarship. I was shocked and delighted when I found out that I was selected.”
Honeywell footed the bill for the whole week.
“I had the opportunity to do two space-shuttle simulations,” she said. “The first one was to the moon and there were ‘anomalies,’ or problems that had to be fixed. This was my favorite, as I got to be the pilot of the shuttle.
“The second was a mission to Mars that was more futuristic. My role was in Mission Control as ‘GNC’ (guidance, navigation and controls) system engineer. Both experiences were beyond interesting and far more stressful than I originally thought,” she said.
The week was full: “Campers” built and launched rockets; went ziplining on team-building exercises, as well as escaping a mock helicopter crash; listened intently to past astronauts, NASA employees, Honeywell representatives and space-related authors; had private, backstage tours of the museums and exhibits at Space Camp; and basically “experienced many fantastic opportunities to network with colleagues from literally all over the world.”
She extended her Space Camp adventure — instead of being flown into Huntsville, she opted to drive and headed to space and aeronautics places throughout the South.
“It turned out to be a three-week thing,” she said.
“Since coming back from Space Camp, I am also committed to learning to fly somehow, though I haven’t figured out yet how I’m going to accomplish that goal.”
That’s one of her next small steps; as for her LEAP, Griffin says, “As far as my students, I have absolutely every intention of bringing back the knowledge, skills and tools that I learned from camp and introducing them to the children in my classroom, as per their interest and developmental appropriateness.”
While at Space Camp, teachers attended 45 hours of immersive classroom and laboratory instruction focused on science, space exploration and leadership skills development. In addition, they learned new instructional exercises, including coding challenges.
“Teachers dedicate their lives to educating students and preparing them for a world they will one day lead,” said Mike Bennett, president of Honeywell Hometown Solutions. “Today, STEM education is no longer about reading from textbooks or memorizing facts and formulas. STEM is about doing. We’re proud to invest in teachers, help them improve their teaching techniques.”
HESA candidates complete a rigorous application process. Qualified teachers are awarded scholarships, round-trip airfare, tuition, meals and accommodations.
“I can guarantee you, nobody got more from it than I did,” Griffin said. “Everything about it was fantastic — even the food.”