CRYSTAL LAKE – After helping her students at Cary-Grove High School reach for the figurative stars, Rebecca Vieyra now has an opportunity to work with those who reach for the literal stars.
The 28-year-old science teacher will not be in the classroom this year after she was selected to work with NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate to help develop government agencies’ educational outreach programs and consult on policies and initiatives involving science education.
The year-long professional leave program is possible because she was named an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow through Triangle Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for better science, technology, engineering and math education.
Vieyra’s recent accolade was preceded by numerous accomplishments including being one of the three state finalists for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and being recognized at the Exemplary Teacher Recognition Award ceremony in Springfield.
Vieyra sat down with the Northwest Herald’s Jeff Engelhardt to talk about the opportunity to work with NASA, her fast rise to becoming one of the state’s top teachers and her future plans after her work in Washington starting in September.
Engelhardt: As someone who obviously has a passion for science, how excited are you to work with NASA?
Vieyra: A year ago I don’t think I could have imagined this was possible. Everyone knows the name NASA and it’s one of the most respected agencies in the world. I’ll get to work with the public, in-service teachers and even develop some curriculum. I get to help impact education at the federal level and I think that’s really awesome.
Engelhardt: Do you have a good idea of what you will be doing?
Vieyra: NASA [has] programs that help advise agencies on policies, ideas, educational outreach and they need teachers who have that real-life experience to contribute to that. So I’ll be working in that aerospace educational outreach and helping with STEM conferences, international science fairs and maybe the Albuquerque Balloon Festival.
Engelhardt: You’ve already had a lot of success as a teacher it looks like. Was teaching something you always wanted to do?
Vieyra: No, actually when I was 5 I thought I wanted to be a nun and I seriously considered it for a while. But around my freshman year of college I decided I wanted to be a teacher. Almost all of my hobbies had a dimension of teaching with them so it was a natural fit. My dad was also a teacher, which probably helped.
Engelhardt: When did you know what you were doing was connecting with the students and working as well as it seemingly has?
Vieyra: I think I found my groove after about four years, which is about how long it takes most teachers to really feel comfortable. New teachers can feel isolated, but at District 155 they don’t let that happen so it was a big help. The most difficult part is the human challenges because the students change every year. But that’s what I enjoy.
Engelhardt: Was getting all of these honors a personal goal of yours or did it just sort of happen for you?
Vieyra: A lot of it has been a personal pursuit. I see it as professional development and a summary of what I accomplished and what I want to accomplish. Setting those goals makes you see yourself in a different, a more critical light.
Engelhardt: When your time with NASA in D.C. is done, do you plan on returning to Cary-Grove?
Vieyra: The plan for me is to return after one year. At the same time I do want to leave my options open. I want to do with my career whatever I can to have the biggest impact on the most students. If that’s in the classroom, great. Maybe it will lead somewhere else, but I still love being in the classroom and having that focus.