Schools in Clarke get NASA veteran

Posted: October 1, 2013

The Winchester Star

Ex-NASA employee Debbie Biggs poses in her office, where photos signed by astronauts hang on her wall. She will work with teachers in Clarke County to find effective ways to encourage students to study and seek careers in science, technology, engineering and math. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
Clarke County High School teacher leader Debbie Biggs, a former NASA employee, is working on a project that will have an astronaut aboard the International Space Station read “Max Goes to the Space Station” to schoolchildren. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

BERRYVILLE

Debbie Biggs has had her head in the stars for many years as an employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Now, she’s hoping her experience and contacts will help Clarke County students reach for those same stars.

Biggs, 50, is the new STEM teacher leader for the Clarke school system. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math — areas of the curriculum where she will work with teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade to find new, more effective ways to encourage students to study and seek careers in those fields.

Bringing space education to earth was Biggs’s job working for NASA for many years and for the Sally Ride Science Festival.

So how did a woman who planned to be a fourth-grade teacher end up streaming video of astronauts reading to elementary students and planning science experiments on the International Space Station?

Just lucky, she said.

The West Milton, Ohio, native landed her first full-time job as a teacher, but, the opening was for a seventh-grade science instructor.

“I did a lot of homework,” she said, keeping ahead of her students in that class.

The next summer, she headed for the University of Dayton to take graduate classes in biology and geology.

Biggs enjoyed the science so much, she continued, adding a visit to the High Altitude Lab at the University of Denver for orienteering — a competitive sport in which participants find their way to various checkpoints across rough country with the aid of a map and compass — mountain goat tracking, alpine wildlife and banding ptarmigans.

“I loved it,” she said, “I couldn’t help thinking, I wish I’d known about (how interesting science is) before.”

 

Then, she was invited to an all-expenses-paid workshop sponsored by NASA and the National Science Teachers Association at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

There, she heard about a job with NASA in its National Aeronautical Education Service.

NASA creates a wide range of educational programs, aimed at students, about its work. Employees, including the astronauts themselves, visit schools to talk about space exploration and the science surrounding it.

Biggs worked on a program where elementary students submitted suggestions for science experiments that astronauts could do on the space shuttle.

Two that were picked were a drawing test, to see how gravity affects manual dexterity, and one that used handwarmers to show how microgravity’s effects differ from those on earth.

One of the high points of that experience, she said, was working on the shuttle mission of astronaut John Glenn in 1998.

After working on NASA’s space shuttle program and coordinating science education projects with those space missions, Biggs moved to Houston to do the same thing with the International Space Station.

In 2002, she transferred to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a new assignment — recruiting teachers to venture into space.

“Three teachers became astronauts,” she added. All three flew a shuttle mission, two did space walks and one spent six months on the space station.

Biggs left NASA to spend more time with her family in Front Royal, but ran her own consulting firm, with NASA as a client. She also worked with former astronaut Sally Ride — who died in 2012 — to promote science careers, especially for girls, through the Sally Ride Science Festivals.

Now, all her experience is aimed at finding ways to help Clarke teachers make STEM courses exciting and interesting for their students.

She’s looking for science experiments to challenge elementary students, and planning a special arts and STEM course academy next summer for all students.

“I’m getting to know the teachers and their needs,” said Biggs, who has sheets of paper on her walls with the programs and ideas she’s already working on.

“There’s a lot available from NASA,” she added, “But I promise I won’t be all about NASA.”

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com