The Astronomical Society of the Pacific has presented Christine Hirst, an astronomy teacher at Arroyo Seco Junior High School, with the Thomas J. Brennan Award for exceptional achievement in teaching astronomy.
“I cried. I’m never nominated for things because I always have my nose buried in getting things to my students,” Hirst said. “I’m pulled in so many directions because I have so many roles that I don’t have time to do what it takes to win awards.”
Hirst said she got a call from the director of the ASP, and she originally thought she had done something wrong at a recent conference. However, it was good news.
“It was so incredible because so much about teaching is accepting that we’re lifelong learners, too,” Hirst said. “Every student that I have thinks that I impact them, but they impact me.”
The ASP’s mission is to promote public science interest, engagement and literacy through astronomy and related fields. The ASP recognizes achievements and awards individuals in astronomy research, technology, education and public outreach.
Hirst’s enthusiasm and passion for astronomy have led her to be a role model to students in the classroom, mentor colleagues and become an astronomy ambassador in the community and abroad, according to a news release announcing her award.
Hirst taught at West Ranch High School for 14 years then moved to teach at Arroyo Seco Junior High School. As a teacher, she developed a hands-on high-altitude ballooning project where students design experiments to be carried into the stratosphere and launch from West Ranch’s outdoor stage.
“Christine is the type of professional who can impress upon students a love for learning,” said Dave Caldwell, spokesman for the William S. Hart Union High School District. “Her passionate drive to discover sets her apart for our students.”
Hirst said now’s the time where educators need to capitalize on those experiences of wonder when students, K-12, look at the moon or stars and feel an urge of inquiry.
“We’re facing a huge shift in education, and we need to be able to find things that kids can connect to and relate to,” Hirst said. “(Experiments) make (science) real. It makes it less abstract.”
When students only read about science, but they’re not doing it, that’s a disserve to them, she added.
“Part of doing experiments with students is allowing them to fail and see the process through that, because as an education system, we don’t promote failure, we promote one way and it’s to succeed all the time,” Hirst said. “But that’s not life.”
Students examined their process and revisited that if they failed, and that is where the learning lies, Hirst added. In 2019, before COVID-19, she and her students hosted the district’s first-ever Student Space Symposium.
NASA judges came and students presented research to them. Hirst recalled one of her students who said “the coolest thing about the high-altitude balloon (one of their experiments) is that the teacher doesn’t know the answer.”
“We’re doing these things without a predetermined outcome,” Hirst said about that day. “It’s not just like mixing A and B to get C. I didn’t have the answer, either, and it was up to the students to pull it off.”
Yael Brynjegard-Bialik, a junior at University California Santa Barbara, is a former student at West Ranch who Hirst inspired to pursue a science, technology, engineering and mathematics major.
“She (Hirst) really cared about us,” Brynjegard-Bialik said. “She cared her students engaged and, not only just like learning material, getting involved with the material. Most of her curriculum involved real world, real projects.”
Brynjegard-Bialik said she nominated Hirst for the Thomas J. Brennan Award because of the impact Hirst had on her life.
“She wasn’t just a teacher to me, she was a mentor,” she said. “That’s someone who cares and is invested in my future. I’m so lucky to have that connection with her. The least I can do is nominate her for an award she well deserves, and I know it’s not just me who feels that way.”
Hirst said she loves teaching, and one day she may return to the Hart district, but for now, she took a year off to work in Washington, D.C., as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.
She is also working as a member of the newly formed National Astronomy Education Committee through the International Astronomical Union. Hirst will help design and facilitate a program to integrate earth and environmental concepts into Next Generation Science Standards for schools in the United States.
“It all started with my students and being able to open them to new and unique experiences that weren’t just textbooks,” Hirst said. “It’s truly reaching for the stars.”