Susan Dougherty: 2020 Women of Innovation® Finalist, Secondary Academic Innovation & Leadership Category
“As a little girl I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and I wanted to do that. I remember then being told by teachers my goal was laughable because I was a girl. Now working with students who will be involved with the first women to walk on the moon is just a dream come true.”
With over 28 years of experience in teaching, Susan Dougherty taught various levels of chemistry, physics, Earth and Space Science, and math, but she is not your average teacher. She directs the STEM initiatives, Mission 12 and 14, as Student Spaceflight Experiment Program Director.
Susan is passionate about engaging students in the process of science and providing opportunities to realize their potential in the STEM community. She had witnessed how science competitions stimulate enthusiasm for learning and prove the rewards of participation and discovery for young women and students from underserved communities.
Combining her love of science and her interest in working with special needs children, Susan went back to school for a Master’s in Special Education.
To excite her students about the subjects of math and science, she utilized the realism of experiential learning, allowing them to translate studies into tangible results. Thus, began her internet search for hands-on solutions leading her to NASA’s programs for high school students. She applied and was accepted into NASA’s LEARN and LiftOff programs, in order to bring NASA missions into the special education classroom.
“My number one criterion was to look for opportunities to get away from the textbook and do things that were more authentic, and research-based. Because Stamford High School is a Title 1 school, we only cover the regular offerings students need to graduate. We don’t have a science research class or science fair, but I knew I needed to expose my students to it”.
As the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program Director for Missions 12 and 14, Susan was charged with preparing, guiding, and supporting her students through their research for a NASA competition. For Mission 12, Susan guided 13 high schoolers on an experiment sent to the international space station. They presented their research at the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESEE) national conference held at the Smithsonian museum. The results were presented live on NASA TV during a launch date, resulting in higher viewership than usual. (Learn more about the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program here: http://ssep.ncesse.org/)
Three Finalist teams were chosen to present their research at the Smithsonian. Of the thirteen students from Mission 12, eleven went on to be the first in their family to attend college, with two accepted into Columbia University, and one each into Johns Hopkins, University of California Berkley, and RPI. As a Title 1 school, this was a milestone achievement for Stamford High School.
For Mission 14, the students focused on cancer research which led to victory and praise by the evaluators. Their experiment was supposed to launch in June but was postponed due to Covid-19. Now scheduled for a March 2021 launch on a Space X Falcon Rocket to the ISS. For this experiment, the compound Galloflavin, which creates an environment in the human body where cancer cells can’t grow, will be sent into space and exposed to chemicals to determine if it reacts in microgravity the same way as it does on earth. The team hopes to collect data, draw conclusions, and publish their work.
Through NASA programs, the students also have the opportunity to meet scientists with similar backgrounds to their own.
This summer, Susan worked with the Office of Student Engagement at NASA with three goals for educators: to obtain and understand NASA missions and research, to highlight the value of STEM, and to identify valuable opportunities to enhance teaching and learning.
In an effort to engage those students who are more interested in the environment than in space, Susan obtained the Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) certification, a program built to provide students the opportunity to participate in data collection and the scientific process. Susan then borrowed equipment from NASA Langley which allowed the students to take ozone readings and enter them into the database that NASA uses for research. A team of female students has entered the GLOBE Science Symposium with this research and won the New England/Mid Atlantic Research Symposium and peer review awards both times.
A documentary video was made based on the GLOBE Symposium with Susan as a co-presenter in the 2020 Stem-For-All Video Showcase. This two-week program included 700 presenters and co-presenters who shared 171 short videos highlighting innovations in STEM education. The videos were viewed over 200,000 times by participants throughout the world. Susan said: “Sharing our work in STEM education with people in places like Austria, Iceland, Thailand, and Israel and reading their comments was an amazing experience. Collaborative efforts are the most rewarding for me.”
To expose her students to collaborative efforts with undergrad students, Susan, and her colleague, Dr. Pallis applied for and were accepted into the Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science (SPOCS) program. In this program, students compete to design and build an experiment to fly to and return from the International Space Station. The students partnered with the University of Bridgeport and Dr. Jani Macari Pallis, a former aerospace engineer with NASA, now a professor of Engineering at the University of Bridgeport (UB) and a Women of Innovation Finalist. A team of five female students proposed the idea for the biological experiment. In this amino acid experiment, bacteria are sent into space to see how it reacts in microgravity. UB is creating a robot that will undo clamps, shake tubes, and attach cameras to record the PH change. The student winners attend the launch when the experiment goes into space and the winning school receives $20,000. (Learn more about SPOCS program here: https://www.nasa.gov/solve/spocs)
Susan’s students will also be participating in the Artemis Program, which is scheduled to land the first woman on the moon by 2024. The students will be a part of the NextGen App development challenge, creating a topographical map of the moon’s south pole. They will be designing an app that may be selected as the GPS application for the astronauts.
“I couldn’t believe I was invited. As a little girl, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and I wanted to do that. I remember then being told by teachers my goal was laughable because I was a girl. Now working with students who will be involved with the first women to walk on the moon is just a dream come true.” The winning students will have the opportunity to attend the launch. These students will be part of space history.
With all that Susan has accomplished as a teacher, she is most proud of her work when former students update her on their life. “I still remember one of my former special needs students reached out to me to let me know that he just bought his first home and is working as an aide in a nursing home.”
For Susan, teaching is her inspiration. It is what gets her out of bed in the morning and moments like these make it all worth it. “I love working in one-on-one sessions with students who come in early because they were unsure of a lesson. I learn just as much from them as they learn from me.”
For fun, Susan is a world traveler and has visited over 23 countries in just the past two years. “I need to immerse myself in the language, food, architecture, and folklore of a country before I can begin to understand their culture.”
When she is not traveling, much of her spare time is spent hiking, biking and skiing at her home in Stowe, Vermont. Susan and her husband of 35 years have 25 acres in the area and enjoy planning their ‘far in the future’ retirement home. “I have a son and a daughter whom I am lucky enough to have living close to us. I wouldn’t miss watching my granddaughter Kiera, 3, and grandson Ian, 1, grow up for the world. Babysitting grandchildren is exhausting, but it’s the most fun you will ever have. I bring them a steady supply of solar system puzzles, robots, space toys and books, and made sure they both have astronaut suits to wear on Halloween.”
So, what is next for Susan?
Susan’s next goal is the national board certification. She is part of the Fund for Teacher Program where she won a grant four years ago for professional development. Since then she has become the CT advisory Board member and is involved with the Ramsden project – to get as many teachers nationally certified as possible. She will be working with a cohort of 11 CT teachers to get the National Board Certification in the Spring of 2022.
Special Education Teacher Advice: “You will have tough days in your personal and professional life. You are allowed to vent and feel what you feel. But try not to bring that to work. Special Needs students need consistency and stability in their lives. Your students spend a good portion of their day with you and your bad day can easily become their bad day. So try your best to stay positive.”
Life Advice: When people doubt your ability and your odds of success are slim, believe in yourself anyway. Ask “Why not me?” and go for it with everything you have. The path to real success lies right outside your comfort zone and failures are only steps along the way.