In 1983, she graduated with an M.S. in Biology from the University of Bridgeport with hopes of becoming a dietician. Over the past 17 years, Naomi Volain ’83 has grown into a high school science teacher whose work has risen to global prominence.
Today Volain is in the running for an educator’s reward of a lifetime – a one million dollar prize for the most innovative, caring, and inspiring teacher the world over. Currently teaching at Springfield Central High School in Massachusetts and a member of the NASA Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, Volain is one of three teachers from the United States who has made the highly prestigious Top 10 Finalist list for the inaugural $1M Global Teacher Prize, sponsored by the Varkey GEMS Foundation.
A member of the Clinton Global Initiative, the Varkey GEMS Foundation aims to raise the standards of education for children around the globe through delivering teacher training workshops in the developing world. With best-practice and professional development programs currently in Kenya, Ghana, and India, the Foundation plans to reach 250,000 teachers and 10,000 school principals directly over the next few years. According to a video on the Varkey Foundation website, Bill Clinton, Honorary Chairman of the Foundation, explains that the multiplier effect of this initiative will transform education systems, “and help so many children live their best life stories.”
Reflecting on what it means for her teaching methodologies to be recognized as part of this larger mission, Volain shares, “I think we do our work in a particular place and sometimes we don’t see that we’re part of the bigger picture. When you’re busy finding vans for field trips and making sure you have the right materials to teach your students, it’s hard to see that your work is actually helping students discover the big picture for themselves…and become global citizens in the process.”
In 2011, Volain received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and in 2014, she won the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators, Honorable Mention EPA District 1. The winner of the Global Teacher Prize will be announced on March 16, 2015. Other finalists hail from India, Haiti, Kenya, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom.
Recently, UBecome asked Volain a few questions about her work as a “global teacher.” Her interview follows.
To me, a global citizen is a person who is able to go out into the world with a world view and the awareness that their hometown is just one spot on the planet.
“The Observation Exercise.” It’s a lesson I conduct in almost every class I have. Students look at a single object from every angle, describe it as they see it in their own voice, then draw it. This allows all students to look at how different people see the same thing individually. From “The Observation Exercise,” you can move on to a dialogue about art and history and science – any topic at all, really.
I applied in 2003 to become an astronaut, not thinking I’d ever be accepted! In fact I knew I wouldn’t be because of medical conditions. But I applied anyway because my true inspiration is exploring, and I followed my curiosity. To my surprise, I became one of 200 finalists for the three teacher-astronaut slots they had open. Then, as one of the top ten percent of teachers selected by NASA, I became a member of the Network of Education Astronaut Teachers (NEAT) program.
The potential of ultimate exploration into space is really exciting for me, and my students love to hear my story because it inspires them. They’re incredulous that I would have applied to become an astronaut, and it’s good for them to hear about trying and not succeeding in one way but then succeeding in another, unexpected way.
Students understand that exploration is the cornerstone of practicing science, so that’s how I’ve been building out my labs and lesson plans. As a member of NASA’s NEAT program, I can share with my students cool artifacts like a ceramic tile from the space shuttle (which is very light and repels heat and cold), lunar rocks, a caddy that holds a space blanket, and the rim that creates suction around a space helmet. Holding these items in their hands makes the American odyssey into space real to them.
I travel a lot, so I bring the world back into my classroom, telling stories that are linked to the lesson. I also prepare students by taking them outside and on field trips. I’ve taken between 600-700 field trips with my classes, including “walking” field trips right outside the school’s green space – lawns, a nearby park. A sampling of other trips have been to agricultural farms, produce stores, caves, zoos, forests, lakes, waste water treatment and municipal recycling facilities, and cemeteries for human population studies.
If you can get your students out of the classroom and out into the world, they can start seeing the world and responding to it, asking questions, having a shared experience. That’s really important. Students from my school are very diverse, and there’s a lot they may not share together coming into the classroom…but when they go out together and have that shared experience, they see how they’re connected on a more global level. They start seeing the world around them from a broader view.
I love taking my students on the Botany field trip, which I’ve done every fall for the past 10 years. We start at the Smith College Botanical Gardens, http://smith.edu/garden/, then head on to Mike’s Maze, http://mikesmaze.com, a corn maze that always has a strong academic bent. At Mike’s Maze, students answer problems on a theme that is really fun and stimulating for them, like this year’s theme of “animal intelligence.” Students are amazed at the plants that come from all over the world. On this field trip, they see things they’ve never seen before.
I learn from my students that there are many different ways to look at things while studying and practicing science. Their experimentation becomes a collaboration, and a dialogue down new paths of inquiry for all of us.