Astronomy teacher Danielle Miller and her students learn together
High school astronomy teacher Danielle Miller always knew she wanted to be a teacher, and always loved space- she went to space camp as a teenager and an adult. Today, she brings space alive in the classroom through a focus on current events and “learning together,” and constantly looks for ways for her students and herself to get hands-on experience with robotics, NASA, and astronomy.
FAST FACTS ABOUT Danielle
Where she’s from: the Poconos, Pennsylvania
Grew up with: mom and dad
Education: Undergraduate degree in teaching
Where she lives now: Orlando, Florida
Growing up she wanted to be: a teacher
Now she’s: a high school astronomy teacher
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I was pretty quiet, because I was an only child. So, my immediate family’s just me and my parents. I was quiet, and I had a couple really close friends, but I was pretty quiet and kept to myself. My close friends, we all were kind of the same. We all took a lot of extra science classes, so that’s how we got to know each other.
Who were the adults that were important in your life when you were growing up?
My parents mostly. My mom never went to college, but it was always something that I knew I was going to do. Because I wanted to be a teacher, I knew that was what I had to do. My dad went to college for agronomy, so he’s into science as well, so I always knew about going to school for science. I was really close with my grandparents as well, and then my teachers, really, are probably the ones that influenced me the most.
How did you feel about school in general?
I always loved school, so I think that’s why I became a teacher. I always liked being there and learning stuff. I didn’t love every class, but for the most part I really liked school.
I took two years of astronomy when I was in high school, and I took two years of chemistry when I was in high school. Then I went to Space Camp when I was 16. I was always into space. I took my first year of astronomy when I was a sophomore; my teacher mentioned it. Then I went back and saw him, and I was like, “I’m doing this this summer.” Me and my other friend wrote a little petition to get my school to offer a second year of astronomy after that.
When my parents were like, “Do you want to have a Sweet 16 party,” I was like, “No, I’ve already been to a bunch of them. Can I go to Space Camp instead?” So we took a road trip to Alabama.
I always wanted to be a teacher, always. I don’t ever remember wanting to do anything else.
Did you want to be a teacher when you were growing up?
I always wanted to be a teacher, always. I don’t ever remember wanting to do anything else. When I was younger, I would always want to play School. I would steal my mom’s ironing board, and I would make it my teacher desk, and I would set everything up, and that’s what I wanted to do.
I was wavering a little between language arts and science, because I still love books. I love diving into a book. My journalism and language arts teacher went to a really good college for teachers. It’s a state school in Pennsylvania, but it was originally a teaching college. She was a really good teacher, so I ended up picking that school to go to, then picking science as my subject area.
What are your favorite things about teaching?
I’m teaching what I want to teach, but even when I wasn’t teaching astronomy, it’s still pretty fun. It’s fun to get to know the students, and it’s fun because a lot of them think science is fun. It’s a little bit of a challenge at first, to get them to trust me and be like, “We can have fun with this.” I don’t ever get bored.
Every year I can change stuff, or even if something doesn’t work, the next day I can try something new, something new. That’s why I chose science, because I knew with astronomy, I’d be learning stuff along the way. Even this summer, Juno got to Jupiter. Last year, New Horizons got to Pluto, and the year before it was Curiosity, so there’s always something exciting happening that we can learn about.
we’re learning together. I think that’s what makes my class a little different: you never know what’s going to happen.
How do you bring some of those current events into the classroom?
I use a lot of social media, actually, because the space community for social media’s pretty good. I don’t hesitate to tell the kids, “Follow this account,” and we can learn stuff from it. I usually look at it in a way of, we’re learning together. I think it helps a lot to show the students that I don’t know everything. I think that’s what makes my class a little different: you never know what’s going to happen.
When I was in astronomy class in high school, our bulwark was NASA Picture of the Day. I still do that in my classroom. Every day they post a different picture. If there’s a really cool picture from Curiosity, we can look at it and talk about it. So, that’s always fun to start, and sometimes, like, we’ll literally spend the whole class, like, looking at whatever is there.
What’s the gender breakdown in your classes?
It’s interesting, because my first year when I taught astronomy, it was very male, 65 or 70 percent male, but now, last year and this year, I started looking at my rosters, it’s pretty even, 50/50, and last year and this year, I think I might have a couple classes with more girls than boys. I’ve got that reputation now: that girls should do science, but it’s cool. My room is full of pink stuff, and I do science.
Do you have a quantitative element to your classes?
Not really. For my class, the way I teach it, we try to find data that’s real and real-time as much as possible, because I think with astronomy, that’s important. A lot of times I’ll say, “Okay, this is what came down from the spacecraft today. Let’s figure out what it means.” So, because I think that’s more realistic and more real-life than just teaching them facts, because it might change. If they know how to analyze data, then I feel like that’s more important of a life skill than knowing on this date, this thing launched.
We did research with the kepler telescope all school year, and then we got to go to the American Astronomical Society meeting to present our findings.
You bring current events into the classroom, and you also get involved with NASA programs. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
If I see it, I’ll apply for it. I got really lucky a couple years ago. Someone reached out to me with Florida Space Grant. Every state, apparently, has a space grant, but some of them aren’t as active as others. They asked us to build a satellite that would go on a weather balloon. A bunch of girls and I got together, and I had two teams. One won and in the summer, we went to University of Florida for a week, and worked on building it and learning about launching the weather balloons. And then the second week, we were at Kennedy Space Center to actually launch it.
One of the days that we were thinking about launching it rained, so we ended up at this place called the Space Walk of Fame Museum, which is really small and has all this really old, crazy space program stuff in it that I’d never seen before. I walked right into the office, to the lady running it, and then all of a sudden it turned into me doing Saturday programs for them.
I applied a couple years ago for this thing called NITARP, through CalTech and JPL. They put teams of students with astronomers, and they work on a project for a year. We did research with the Kepler telescope on red giant stars, so I brought two girls out to CalTech for a week in the summer. We did research all school year, and then we got to go to the American Astronomical Society meeting to present our findings, which is what all of the astronomers do.
I get lots of rejection letters, but sometimes it works out.
You were also a teacher intern at NASA. What was like that?
It was a grant-funded thing where they wanted teachers to come in and work with the actual people at NASA to get lesson plans that were more meaningful. I was with GSDO, Ground Systems Development and Operations, which are the people who do the crawler and the VAB. A lot of people, when they pay attention to [NASA], it’s “The Rocket,” but they don’t really pay attention to what’s going on on the ground. I wrote lesson plans all summer on their systems and the stuff that they do on the ground.
What are some of the other things you do as a teacher that somebody who does not teach might not know about?
Probably the most important thing that I do is mentoring. Our students after a while feel comfortable enough to come to us with anything, which is kind of terrifying sometimes, because they will tell you stuff that sometimes you don’t necessarily want to know. If you’re the only one they feel comfortable with, then I’d rather them tell me than somebody else.
I’ve had to build a lot of relationships on campus with other people that can handle that stuff better than I can. I think other than teaching the content, you have to be aware that they’re humans, too. If they feel like they know you a little bit, and that you know them, they’re going to be more willing to learn. It’s not something they teach you in college. When you’re in college for teaching, it’s like, “Here’s how to teach this science thing,” and that’s it.
You also train other teachers. What does that involve?
I have fallen into a little bit of a leadership role in my school. I started recently teaching teachers a little more. This summer I was actually at training for three weeks for digital stuff, because every kid at my school next year’s going to have a laptop. We have to train all the teachers how to use them for their class. I was at training for a week myself, and then the past two weeks, I was teaching it, so, “Here’s how you use Google Drive; here’s how you can use social media in your classrooms.”
What’s the magnet program that you’re involved in?
Global Technologies is for kids who want to be engineers, but they don’t know what kind of engineer they want to be yet, which I find is really common. We offer an intro to engineering class, and an engineering design class. We offer digital electronics, and we offer computer science; they get a little bit of everything, and then they can decide what they want to do from there. I’m the program coordinator. I work on the paperwork side of it, registering the kids.
Can you tell us a little bit about the extracurriculars you do with your students?
I have the GEMS Club, which is the Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science Club. We promote science and math classes to girls around campus, because our numbers are not good in physics and computer science. We do a little campaign when it’s time to sign up for classes, and tell the girls what they can take, and then we have guest speakers, too. We only meet once a month.
We have a co-ed robotics team and an all-girls one, which is the one I coach. We’ve had a team for four years now. That’s pretty fun. We do FTC [FIRST Tech Challenge]. In September they come out with a game, and you have to build the robot to play the game. It’s a learning experience. I have no idea how to build a robot, but the girls do it. A lot of my girls have been on the team all four years with me. A couple of them are going to college for computer science. One of my girls is going to Georgia Tech; she’s going to do biomedical engineering, and then I had a girl going to MIT.
It’s interesting to have a team of all girls, because a lot of the teams have one or two girls, or no girls at all. Now people are used to us, but the first couple years when we’d show up, we wear pink. Everything is pink, the robot’s pink. We don’t play around. The first year we made it to state, and the year after that we also made it to state. It helps them to see that we are part of it as well.
I do this other club called Astronaut Challenge, run through FSU. They wrote a grant, and built this shuttle simulator. The kids compete there, and do this engineering challenge and fly the shuttle.
What else fills your time?
I read a lot of books. Over the summer, my goal was to read a certain number of books. I didn’t read as many as I wanted to, but I try to read a lot. I don’t watch a lot of TV. I went to Comic Con yesterday in Tampa, so, I got to meet the guy who plays Daredevil.
What advice would you give somebody who was a kid like you, when you were a girl?
Learn as much as you can, because you never know what opportunities might come up that you would want to be ready for, but also don’t let anyone discourage you from doing what you like, like, say “That’s a thing for boys,” or, “I didn’t know girls liked doing that,” because I realize it now more that I’m older that I did hear those kind of things a lot when I was a kid, but it never bothered me. I just did what I wanted to anyway, and just embrace it, because you never know what opportunities might pop up along the way.
It’s a big responsibility to be the one to show your students that whatever you’re teaching them is something worth learning.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to be a teacher, and also who’s interested in astronomy and in space?
For the teaching part, make sure you love to learn, because teaching’s changed so much. You have to love learning, because your job’s always going to change. Also, you have to be able to show the students that learning is fun, too.
Also you have to realize what a responsibility it is. I know that sounds cheesy, but I feel like sometimes I’m the one who either makes science fun, or if I do it wrong, it just totally turns them off from science forever. So, I think it’s really important to know that you could literally make or break that thing for your students.
Even now I see my students who I had four or five years ago. Last summer I had a bunch of kids reach out and be like, “Oh my gosh, New Horizons finally got to Pluto,” because we were always talking about it when I had them. It’s a big responsibility to be the one to show your students that whatever you’re teaching them is something worth learning, because they can always take that with them and keep going.
What about people who are interested in learning about space?
Reach out and find people that are into it like you are, because those are the conversations that are most fun. I think if you just put yourself out there, the people who are into it just as much as you will find you, and be excited to talk to you, but also you might be teaching people about it that don’t even really want to learn about it. Even this summer, I was posting about Juno on Facebook, and everyone was reaching out, they’re like, “It’s so exciting. I didn’t even know it was on, but I’m going to watch it now.”
If you really love space, you have to go out and find it for yourself. Once you do, there’s a lot of ways to share it with people. I don’t think anyone’s ever like, “Space isn’t cool.” There is always someone who will want to talk about it with you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out books Danielle loves and find out more about her!