From eastern to western hemisphere, from teaching students in the city to becoming a student in the desert, from Mandarin-speaking to Spanish-speaking, West Ranch High School science teacher Christine Bernhardt taught and learned from them all this past summer.
Kicking off her summer teaching a program in Hong Kong, and eventually moving on to Chile later in the summer, Bernhardt said she taught all those students she encountered about the importance of astronomy and how the subject impacts their lives.
During one of her industry conferences regarding astronomy at the Johnson Space Center, Bernhardt said she encountered someone from Hong Kong looking to create a summer camp designed around teaching kids about STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) or space.
“He wanted to bring over someone who was involved with and knowledgeable about NASA missions and the space industry,” said Bernhardt. “I figured it was just a pipe dream, but in February he said he had the funding and all things go.”
Bernhardt said she was asked to go out to Hong Kong in July and design, facilitate and lead a space camp for English language learners. Bernhardt, calling the program “Race You to Mars,” said that in Hong Kong she had minimal materials, but the combination of her passion for the subject and the kids’ desires to learn made it a rewarding experience for all involved.
“I had no idea what the age of my students was going to be or their English level was going to be. I had one girl who didn’t speak English at all,” said Bernhardt. “But I was still able to make this whole storyline about going to Mars.”
Bernhardt said that in addition to classroom time, she also took the kids to a public park on the anniversary of the Apollo landing and conducted a rocket launch with them.
After a short honeymoon with her husband in the Philippines, Bernhardt was off to Chile following the conclusion of the Hong Kong camp. While in Chile — made possible through an application sent at the last minute to the National Science Foundation — Bernhardt was acting as an astronomy ambassador.
While in South America, she was learning and working alongside other educators and ambassadors in the program — although she was the only secondary education teacher in attendance — at the ALMA telescope in the desert of Atacama.
Made up of 66 antennas at 16,500 feet elevation, the ALMA telescope is above 40% of the Earth’s atmosphere and virtually all of the world’s water vapor, according to the website. Made up by a series of smaller telescopes working simultaneously, ALMA can become a 10-mile wide, singular telescope.
“Astronomy in Chile is just being used in so many ways, from maintaining the culture, to the environment, to the economy,” said Bernhardt. “It is just really interesting interesting to see that astronomy there is so beyond the science.”
Known by students at West Ranch High School for being a teacher who leads weather balloon experiments that have seen payloads delivered thousands of feet into the atmosphere, Bernhardt said she would be applying for grants from the National Science Foundation to develop new curriculum for her students.
“My goal, always, in teaching something that students see as more abstract is that they can see the relevance of it to their lives,” said Bernhardt. “Astronomy isn’t just about getting to Mars and it’s not just about producing astronauts. It’s about our place in the universe, and what we’re going to do with that responsibility.”