Two CHS Teachers Named Riecke Fellows And Will Go To NASA

Two South Orange-Maplewood Columbia High School teachers will test experiments in zero gravity at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston this summer as the Achieve Foundation’s Riecke Fellows.

Heidi Welner and Mark Harley will be part of the “Clouds” program, which gives educators the opportunity to propose, build and test experiments in a zero gravity environment using the space agency’s “Weightless Wonder” airplane. Welner and Harley will spend 10 days in July at Johnson Space Center for the program, which is administered under a contract with NASA by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory of Princeton University.

Michelle T. Riecke believed that teachers are our schools’ greatest asset and the key to maximizing student achievement. This fellowship in her name is an endowed program that awards annual professional development grants to district educators who wish to pursue summer learning experience that relate to their teaching assignments. These two Riecke Fellows will use the knowledge gained this summer to support improvements in practice, curriculum and, ultimately, student achievement.

“Sending our teachers to a science education program of this caliber epitomizes Shelley Riecke’s vision for this fellowship,” said Deborah Prinz, executive director of Achieve. “The experience of conducting experiments with science masterminds at NASA and Princeton is sure to be uniquely inspiring for our teachers. Their colleagues and students will gain from what these teachers learn, and the experience will be a great example of how access to leading scientists and institutions is attainable.”

The 2012 summer fellows are being granted $5,000. That amount brings the total awards to Riecke fellows since 2004 to $36,135. This year is the first time a Riecke Fellowship is being awarded for science.

Participation in the “Clouds” program required the teachers to submit a detailed proposal to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in January. Their proposal, a joint effort between Seton Hall University and Columbia High School, involves hydrogel beads, a special type of polymer. At the awards reception Friday, Welner described these beads as being the stuff inside diapers. There are “practical uses for this in science,” she said.

Alan Levin, supervisor of science for grades 6-12 and a strong proponent for his department’s involvement in this cutting-edge professional development program, will accompany the Riecke fellows to the space center. The experiments will be conducted onboard NASA’s specially designed “Weightless Wonder” aircraft that mimics zero gravity conditions.

The Achieve Foundation of South Orange and Maplewood raises money to promote exemplary public education for all students and educators in our community. Achieve allocates these funds exclusively to educators in nine schools of the School District of South Orange and Maplewood, which is 6,600 students strong. This money provides classroom grants, volunteer tutors, professional development, family outreach and technology and facility improvements to enrich the learning experience of students at all grade levels.

(Photo: Left to right: Heidi Welner, Riecke fellow; Alan Levin, district supervisor of science grades 6-12; Elena Riecke and Jon Riecke, daughter and husband of Michelle Riecke; Tina Squyres, administrator of the Riecke Fellowship)

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