Cornell contributes to STEM ed across county

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As a center for higher education it’s no surprise that Cornell University has contributed an immeasurable amount of knowledge to the local community, but what might come as a surprise is just how early that contribution starts. It’s not just college level students and above who benefit from the resources and education at CU. Local schools in public districts are benefitting as well.
Tucked into the middle of the expansive Cornell campus is the Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility (SPIF), a federally funded, NASA affiliated institution all about space and space exploration. Zoe Ponterio is the manager of SPIF and the closest thing to a space Ms. Frizzle that Ithaca has. From her space themed earrings to her space themed dress, Ponterio is a walking-teaching space enthusiast, and she loves sharing that enthusiasm with local students.


SPIF has three main functions: operating as an archive facility for the space exploration missions conducted by NASA, a research support facility, and an outreach and education facility. Local students are invited to come to the Cornell campus to learn about space at SPIF, or Ponterio will travel within a three-hour radius to bring tailored space education to them. But it’s not just schools that can benefit. Ponterio has also brought her enthusiasm and knowledge to Lifelong, the local senior activity center.


“There are no age restrictions on this. Space is cool for everyone,” she said.


For almost 40 years, SPIF has operated on the Cornell campus archiving and supporting local researchers and students. It is part of a worldwide network of 16 facilities, and part of the Regional Planetary Imaging Facility network (RPIF). File cabinets line the walls of Ponterio’s office/education facility, full of all the images taken from NASA space missions. But in the back, there’s a separate room set aside just for teaching. A white orb sits at the front of the room, ready to become a planet or a moon that students can explore.


Because of the facility’s history, some of the relationships that SPIF has with local students are longstanding. Every year, for many years, the second-graders from the Lansing Central School District take a field trip to the facility to learn about space.


“So, some relationships have just been around for a very long time,” Ponterio said. “Others, I’m out there in the community, I’ve lived here for 16 years, and I mention to parents or other teachers what we do, and they’re like ‘Oh yes, come to my school.’ So, we’re always expanding.”


Sometimes she cold calls or emails teachers and principals of schools that SPIF hasn’t been to yet, ready to put together a presentation on practically anything space related. Recently, she created a special presentation on Mars colonization for the students of Moravia who were working on a project about the red planet. Give her 10 minutes and she’ll even convince you that Pluto never was a planet, and that’s ok! All of this at no cost to the schools or students who take advantage of SPIF as a resource.


Before starting at SPIF about a year ago, Ponterio taught math and physics at the high school level, and she’s worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission. Currently she is working with about 20 different schools, and not just in the classroom.


“One of the great things during the year, especially if the teachers are feeling crunched in their curricula, I do the afterschool programs,” she said. “That way, you reach a lot of students, the afterschool people love it because it’s something that entertains the kids, and -especially as you get into the winter months- that’s a great thing to do for the afterschool people.”


Ponterio sees her outreach work as intertwined with SPIF’s mission to support research.


“Without people knowing what you’re doing, understanding what you’re doing, caring about what you’re doing, there’s only so long that you can feel confident that you’re going to get funding and get support for doing what you’re doing,” she said.


Sparking an early interest in STEM is an important part of keeping STEM funding flowing. But SPIF and Ponterio aren’t alone in this mission. The Cornell Graduate Student School Outreach Program (GRASSHOPR) pairs up local kindergarten through grade 12 teachers with a graduate student to create a lesson plan that fits within the teacher’s curriculum and gives graduate students valuable teaching experience at the same time. The program is entirely graduate student run and is funded by the Cornell Public Service Center. Most of the courses that are created and taught through GRASSHOPR are STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) related, but not all.


“We collect course ideas, course abstracts, from graduate students, and then we send out what we call a course catalogues to both teachers and principals,” said Carolyn Diefenderfer, one of the graduate students who runs the program. “So, then teachers look through the catalogue to see if there’s anything that piques their interests that’s within the teaching standards that they have to adhere to in their curriculum. Then they let us know if they’re interested in any courses and then from there, we do our best to match grad students with teachers in a way that benefits both parties." 


This year, GRASSHOPR has 85 graduate students and nine local school districts participating, for a total of 40 courses taught in 40 different classrooms. Last year, the program reached just over 1,000 students.


For Sierra Meyers, a fifth-grade science and social studies teacher at Cayuga Heights, the GRASSHOPR program helps her re-energize her class.


“I think it helped just having a new face in the classroom,” Meyers said. “Kids kind of get used to – especially in fifth grade – they get used to the same personality throughout the year, and then just have a few fresh faces. It also gives me an opportunity to present the curriculum in a different way than the standard ‘These are the units we do throughout the year,’ and I just put a new twist on it.”


For her students, it’s a great chance to see young, local professionals they can look up to. After each session the class gets to ask the GRASSHOPR graduate students questions. Meyers sees this as an opportunity for her students to learn not in an education sense, but also about the possibilities open to them for their future. She plans on continuing to work with GRASSHOPR for as long as she can.

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