Ms. Aileen Toback has been teaching 7th grade Life Science in the same classroom at Heritage Middle School in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District for 22 years and now, she’s working for NASA.
Earlier this fall, NASA sent out to all educators to apply for climate change research position. Unfortunately, that position was already filled, but Toback impressed NASA so much, that they hired her to be an Educational Ambassador for the NASA Climate Change Research Initiative program and a liaison for the Goddard Space Flight Center Office of STEM Engagement at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in NYC.
When asked about her initial response to her new position, Toback said, “It’s a dream come true. It didn’t seem real.”
Since the fall, Toback has engaged in weekly meetings with NASA online and occasional visits to Manhattan. All data, resources, webinars are conducted with climate change researchers from NASA. Part of her role is incorporating research into her classroom and utilizing her students as science researchers.
Earlier this year, Toback’s classes participated in Snowflake classification. Scholars helped contribute to NASA’s work and NASA’s Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) in understanding climate change by categorizing snowflakes using a Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera (MASC). The purpose of the project was to involve students in the science of snowflake classification through Zoonverse, while simultaneously building a dataset that will be used to “teach” machine learning algorithms to automatically identify other, larger sets of snowflakes. Scholars classified 5-10 snowflakes a day, doing so in class or at home with their family.
Aside from equipping her students as researchers, Toback compiles data and turn that into teachable moments for students. Additionally, she uses her expertise to understand the science research and then translate that research into lessons.
When asked what her motivation for applying to work with NASA, Ms. Toback said. “Climate change is something I’ve been very passionate about since college. I think there are so many misconceptions about what climate change is and in order to make effective changes it starts at a young age. I think it’s important for young people to learn their role and how to make positive changes for the environment. That’s just hugely important for me.”
She was hopeful to conduct research this summer with climate change researcher at NASA, but plans have changed with the current global health crisis. Ms. Toback noted that it almost feels like she’s getting a degree from NASA with the amount that she is learning and has access.
Toback is also training in Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) protocol for the GLOBE program, which is something she plans to present for staff at Heritage to use for all students. She is excited about any opportunity to share real world data with students. As part of this project, she is researching marine life at the ocean bottom. She is utilizing data from surveillance robots and empowers her students to help identify everything that has been recorded. Ms. Toback finds that her students are very comfortable with the technology, they understand what they were looking for and the implications.
For each project, her goal is to be able to share multiple sets of data with her students, help them analyze it, and come up with a conclusion that her students can support - without them being overwhelmed. She has been letting her students know that in the near future, half of NASA staff will be retiring and that there are plenty of opportunities for their futures to work there, not just as a scientist, but as an engineer, IT model development, and so on.
Toback has been teaching 7th grade Life Science and Living Environment to students from inclusion classes to Honors classes for the last 22 years at Heritage Middle School. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology, a master’s degree in Instructional Technology, and an AGC in Educational Leadership. Ms. Toback is a NYS Master Teacher- Mid Hudson. She has received Outstanding Teacher Leader Recognition. She is a Taconic IPA Donor Advised Grant Winner. She has also been published for her work in the book Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum: Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education.