Due to budget cuts, the usual 50-school selection was slashed in half, giving only 25 educational institutions the chance to participate in a competitive program that is in demand throughout the country.
Travis said Dunbar is one of only two Texas schools to be chosen for the program this year. "In fact, we are the only two schools chosen this year from the Johnson Space Center region, which covers eight states."
Johnson Space Center in Houston, along with every other NASA center, chooses candidates each year. The application process involves a grant proposal and often the formation of a faculty-run NES team to get the proposal done in time. As was the case with Dunbar, many schools attend workshops and seminars well in advance to improve their school's chances of being selected. "Two of our science teachers attended another NASA program several summers ago called Middle School Aerospace Scholars," said Travis. "They were presented with the information at that time. They returned to school excited about the opportunity."
The grant proposal must include information such as demographics and goals for the school - from academics to steps designed to improve family and community involvement. After the grant proposal is written, school candidates are narrowed down and chosen for a teleconference with NASA's decision committee. "Unfortunately the first time we applied, we were not chosen," said Travis. "'Failure is not an option' was our school motto, and we reformed the team last year and hit the drawing board again. We rewrote and rewrote our answers for the application. We reapplied when the window was open again. We again were called for a teleconference and underwent the interview process. This time we were chosen."
After a school is selected for NES, the planning and training continues. "An initial needs assessment collects information about areas of concern for the NASA Explorer School to determine program direction for the first summer workshop and follow-on support," said NASA's Sanders. "Educators and a school administrator, who are NES team members, attend an all-expenses-paid, one-week professional development workshop at one of the 10 NASA field centers."
This orientation is only the beginning when it comes to the training and preparation that chosen schools receive to make the most of their three years in the NES program.
Dunbar is known as a math and science academy and is the only middle school in the district offering a powerful scientific focus. Through the NES program, Dunbar hopes to get students and parents invested in its science curriculum.
"NES expands horizons - opening young minds to the possibilities of what the future holds," said Sanders. "NES strives to make the resources, experiences and tools necessary for effective science and mathematics education available to schools nationwide. The NES project links educators and students to resources and facilities that are normally beyond reach in the public school system.
"This direct contact plays an integral part in impacting individual students and entire school communities," Sanders said. "NES connects NASA to communities at a personal level that allows students, teachers, parents, administrators and the local community to experience and interact with NASA outside the newspaper headlines."
Tamara Warta is a former staff writer for Texas Technology magazine.