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Riverdale science teacher headed for 'Space Academy'

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Sancia Berkley said she was interested in outer space as a child growing up in St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but she never had dreams of being an astronaut.

Berkley said she is "fascinated" with learning and likes science-related topics, such as the subject of outer space, because "with science, there is always something new to learn" through the experimentation process.

But what about traveling to the stars?

"I've been curious about space, but never to the point that I wanted to have a career as an astronaut," Berkley said. She added that her original dream was to own a fitness center where people could "get their hair done, get something healthy to eat, and work out."

Berkley, 39, eventually ended up becoming the science lab teacher at Harper Elementary School in Riverdale, though, and she will soon learn how to be a space explorer after all.

Berkley, a resident of Stockbridge, is one of two Georgia teachers, and among 288 educators from around the world, who are participating in a teachers "Space Academy" offered at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., this summer.

The academy, called the "Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy" program, is part of a partnership between the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and the Honeywell Corporation's Honeywell Hometown Solutions department.

The Honeywell Corporation is a technology company that makes a wide variety of items, ranging from thermostats, to bulletproof materials for military uniforms, said Lisa Higgins, a specialist in the Honeywell Hometown Solutions department, who coordinates the "Space Academy" program with officials from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

Higgins said the aim is to teach educators new activities they can use in their classrooms to encourage more students to pursue careers in the science and technology fields.

Berkley said she is scheduled to depart for the "Space Academy" on June 27. During the week-long academy, she will participate in hands-on activities, such as "space gardening," "[water bottle] rocket construction," space "shuttle orientation," and use of the center's astronaut simulators. It will be her first time at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

"I was stunned because most of the programs that are out there are geared towards middle and high school teachers, because they are more content specific in what they teach," Berkley said. "I thought it would be more difficult for me to get in as an elementary school teacher, so I was just shocked and excited at the same time."

Higgins said teachers are selected based on their responses to essay questions included in their applications. She said the questions ask teachers to explain how long they've been teaching, and how they plan to use the information they learn at the academy. "We're looking for people who clearly have a mission to educate and motivate children to be interested in math and science," Higgins said.

Berkley said she plans to bring many of the activities she learns back to her classroom. She said she will review the Georgia Performance Standards to see which activities can be used as part of her classroom lessons.

She said activities that do not fit into those standards will be offered to the after-school science club, known as "Harper's Explorers," of which she is a sponsor.

"The most important thing is it's going to provide me with more creative ways to teach that I can bring back and share with my colleagues, and, ultimately, make learning more interesting for the students," Berkley said.

She said she has been teaching for 9 years, mostly in the Clayton County School System. She came to the Clayton system eight years ago, and spent the first four years teaching math at West Clayton Elementary School. She has spent the last four years teaching math and science at Harper Elementary School.

Prior to teaching in Clayton County, Berkley said she spent her first year as an educator teaching math to seventh-, and eighth-graders at a school in the Bronx borough of New York City. She has a bachelor's degree in business and accounting from the State University of New York-Empire State College, and a master's degree in education from American Intercontinental University.

Even though she never dreamed of being an astronaut as a child, Berkley said she is now pondering a space theme for the science lab. She said she plans to meet with Arlene Bellamy, a volunteer from Arts Clayton, who helps her with the lab's decorations, next month to discuss the design, and see if it is achievable, based on the materials they have at their disposal.

"We were initially looking at an underwater theme, but now we're looking at a space theme, with a giant rock, because I'm going to the Space Academy," Berkley said.