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To NASA and beyond: John Marshall teacher wraps up her 'summer of the nerd'

Melissa Erickson has been a public school teacher for four years. Before that, she taught scuba diving, which was how she began learning about the practical applications of science in the first place.

John Marshall High School teacher Melissa Erickson
John Marshall High School teacher Melissa Erickson on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — It's something she may never get to use again, but Melissa Erickson recently learned how to handle moon rocks. For that matter, she also learned how to make a giant radio telescope.

She's been busy lately.

The John Marshall High School teacher is on the tail end of what she describes as the "summer of the nerd." Starting with a trip to NASA, she collected a slew of experiences and knowledge over the last month that she hopes to be able to pass along to her students.

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"Anytime a teacher can walk into a classroom with real life experience, it just lends so much more credibility to what you're teaching. It gives you better insight, and you're able to make better connections with students," Erickson said.

In late June, Erickson traveled to NASA's space consortium in Texas, shaking hands with astronauts and exchanging ideas with fellow teachers. She learned about the opportunity through her niece, and went through the Minnesota space grant to make it a reality. According to Erickson, she and another teacher on the same trip were the first from Minnesota to go.

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Part of the experience was practical: Teachers shared lesson plans and learned how to make science projects, like rubber band-propelled carts they later can replicate with their students.

Other times, it was about getting inspired. One of the speakers during the trip was astronaut Don Pettit, who invented a zero-gravity coffee cup because he didn't want to drink through a straw. That organic, problem-solving curiosity is something Erickson wants her students to have.

"That's something that I think students need to understand," Erickson said. "They often think science is what's in the book – that 'I go to this classroom and that's where I learn science.' No. Science starts with 'I want a cup of coffee and I'm sitting in space. How do I do that?'"

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John Marshall teacher Melissa Erickson meets the astronaut Fred Haise NASAS' Texas Space Grant Consortium.
Contributed / Melissa Erickson

After NASA, she went to Dayton, Ohio, where she attended a workshop for teachers about Ham radios. She now has an antenna with which she hopes to teach her students science concepts.

Finally, she went to Winona State University, where she spent time learning how to build a radio telescope shaped like a giant square funnel. Made out of cardboard, tinfoil and some electronics, it's able to detect radio emissions from hydrogen atoms. When she points the telescope at the Milky Way, she's able to see an energy spike on the computer.

She knows the value of hands-on learning, and this summer has armed her with some of the tools she needs to incorporate that into the classroom more.

"If they can see it, touch it, taste it, smell it, they learn it better," Erickson said of her students. "If they're sitting there in their desks, I'm board; they're bored. I definitely am coming away this summer with a lot more stuff that I can now easily insert into my classroom."

Erickson has been a public school teacher for four years. Before that, she taught scuba diving. She began diving when she was only 12 or 13. That's how she began learning about the practical applications of science in the first place.

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And now, years later, she's trying to find ways to help her students find science in the real world too.

"In order to scuba dive, you have to understand pressure and volume and density and buoyancy," Erickson said. "Through the sport, you're living them."

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John Marshall Teacher Melissa Erickson builds a space telescope during a workshop for teachers at Winina State University.
Contributed / Melissa Erickson

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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