Former Learn and Serve America Teacher Blasts into Space

Mar 17, 2009

Joe Acaba Traded a Classroom for Outer Space



Before teacher-turned-astronaut Joseph Acaba blasted off into space on March 15 on the Discovery Space Shuttle, he asked for a special item from Dunnellen Middle School to carry on his journey. The students and teachers at the school obliged with an aerial photograph of themselves taken outside the school. After carrying it into space, Acaba plans to return it to be displayed at the school.

Acaba, who taught science at the school, believes that his experience offering a service-learning component in his classes is part of what prompted NASA to select him as a teacher-in-space, according to Joe Follman, director of Florida Learn and Serve. Acaba engaged students in environmental service-learning projects at Rainbow Springs State Park and on the Rainbow and Withlacoochie Rivers. His service-learning projects were supported by grants from Learn and Service America.

During the flight, Acaba’s duties will include serving as a mission specialist during ascent and entry, operating the shuttle’s robotic arm, and performing two spacewalks to help attach a truss and final set of large solar arrays to the station.

Excitement about the shuttle flight has gripped the school and the community, according to Jane Ashman, the middle school principal. Three teachers and two students attended the launch in person. For those who stayed home, because they live in Florida, the entire community could view the initial stages of the space flight just by going outside. “It was so pretty, just gorgeous, and that’s all anybody is talking about today,” she reported the day after the lift off.

Although he left Dunnellen for NASA, Acaba has remained involved by visiting the school several times during the five years of his training. Eighth graders participated in a video conference with NASA in February. And with the aerial picture, “he took all of us in spirit with him,” Ashman said. She hopes that he will be able to make a presentation of the picture to the school before final exams start at the end of May.

Ashman is unclear as to what Acaba’s post space-flight plans are, but should he decide to return to the classroom, there will be a job waiting for him in Dunnellen whenever he wants. The downside of Acaba’s acceptance by NASA, according to the principal, is, “he was an absolutely awesome, fantastic teacher. It’s a shame that I had to lose a great teacher to being a great astronaut, but now he teaches on a bigger stage.”

Learn and Serve America, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, is a catalyst for service-learning programs nationwide that connect community service with academic curriculum. Through these programs, in class and in extracurricular activities, students serve others in their communities while strengthening their academic and civic skills. In addition, service-learning fosters partnerships between schools and their communities that strengthens communities and meets immediate community needs.

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