My story and my interest in space exploration started in my hometown of Chiclayo, Peru, located north of Lima. When I was six years old, I saw an astronaut walk on the moon for the first time. I will never forget that moment and how it impacted my live forever.
In 1986, the news about the disaster of the Challenger, killing all seven crew members including a teacher, impacted me as well. I had not known that teachers had opportunities to participate in space projects. I then began shifting my career in the States to become a teacher of space and science education for the youngest students.
Inspiring Young Students
For almost 26 years, I worked in primary education, turning my classroom into a science laboratory with hands-on experiments for my young students. I prepared a number of activities within the pre-kindergarten curriculum to inspire students to become space and science enthusiasts.
In 2014, I was selected to become a Teacher Liaison for the Space Foundation along with 24 other educators from the U.S. and abroad. We maintain active educational links among the Space Foundation, the aerospace community, and NASA programs. I started collaborating with my district and community in bringing STEM programs to the classroom, and I presented workshops for educators in my school district. I even trained at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where I got certification for handling lunar and meteorite samples.
My dream came true when I registered in 2016 for the Space Academy for Educators in Huntsville, Alabama. After 30 years of preparing myself, I was excited to join the elite group of teachers participating in this complete training program.
I always wanted to give back to my hometown, to return there and make a positive impact. My time at the Space Academy gave me an idea for this. During my training, I became aware of the story of Miss Baker, a Peruvian squirrel monkey who went to space. She was the type of monkey I usually saw at the market when I was a child. Why not bring this story to Peruvian students to inspire and motivate them?
I planned a visit to Chiclayo, and I connected with a school principal in Patapo, a small town 45 minutes from Chiclayo city. She was very happy to bring this experience to her classroom. We chose a fun, easy project with simple materials, and I prepared a PowerPoint presentation that introduced the story of Miss Baker.
Travelling to Patapo
The bumpy road to Patapo crosses large fields of corn and cotton. Patapo is a very small town full of needs, a place where you discover great potential and happiness among material deficiencies. The people in the town are very polite and salute everyone. They congregate at the fruit and vegetable market, where products are sold to visitors from neighboring towns.
The environment reflects a very relaxed type of life. Motorcycles are the main way of transportation, and houses are very small. The weather is very warm and dry. Dust and wind make it hard to keep the streets clean, but people try their best using brooms, and they water regularly in front of their homes.
The people of Patapo are Mochica (old pre-Inca culture) descendants. They are mostly farmers. The children possess a lot of enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. This combination makes a visit to Patapo’s school a very gratifying journey.
At the center of the town, the school covers an entire brick-fenced block with one big patio area surrounded by five classrooms. All the rooms’ windows are open for the fresh air blowing from the mountains, the best and purest AC. The large mountains next to the school make you feel small and vulnerable if a landslide takes place. A single metal door is the main access to the school.
The pre-K students sat on the floor as I gave my presentation. I showed them a stuffed animal I brought with me: a monkey in a spacesuit. Instead of a helmet, she wears a wide, flat hat with colorful trim—a traditional style for ladies in Peru and Bolivia. She represents Miss Baker, the squirrel monkey who went to space. She is the mascot for our S-STEM club at Palm Springs North Elementary.
Squirrel monkeys are very familiar to Peruvian children, who see them for sale as pets at the market. Pre-Inca ceramics commonly depict these monkeys. Miss Baker was a squirrel monkey born in Iquitos, a city in the jungle. She was selected from a group of 25 monkeys in a training program at the U.S. Navy Aviation Medical School. On May 28, 1959, Miss Baker and a rhesus monkey named Able became the first two animals that were launched into space by the United States and returned alive and safe. The children were fascinated by the story about a little monkey from their jungle that flew into space.
Sparking Enthusiasm for Science
The first activity I led with the class was to design an airplane made of magnet puzzles and Legos. Then we built hoop gliders from paper, straws, and tape and tested them outside on the patio. It was exciting to see the students easily engaged in the activity. They were very independent and used the materials effectively.
The students asked many questions about the glider and the way it functions. They asked me why we were designing an airplane without wings. I explained recent and future uses of ring-shaped wings in aerodynamic airplanes, awakening their imaginations. The children showed a lot of potential in creating new devices. They expressed their own ideas and experiences related to traditional flying systems.
It was a joy to bring space science activities and Miss Baker’s story to an impoverished Peruvian classroom. I love working with young students who show incredible interest and enthusiasm. I am sure they can be science and space pioneers in the near future. Maybe one day some student will dream like I did many years ago.
Rossana Chiarella has the unusual experience of teaching from the sky. In 2014, she participated in a Teaching Orientation Flight offered by the Civil Air Patrol. While in the air, she took photos of the view and made videos of herself reading stories from a book in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools curriculum. Then this year she took aerial teaching to a new level. She made a video while paragliding over the coast of Peru! She says her students are fascinated when she uses the videos in her teaching.
Chiarella’s educational reach goes far beyond Peru: She sent a message on Hayabusa2, a Japanese spacecraft that is studying asteroid 1999 JU3 (“Ryugu”), about 120 million km from Earth! Her message says, “Educators provide an opportunity for all children to succeed in life.”