KIMBALL — As an elementary school student growing up in Platte, Jennifer Ekstrum was watching a live television broadcast of the space shuttle Challenger launch on Jan. 28, 1986, with the rest of her class when she witnessed one of the worst space program disasters in the history of the United States.

Just a little over a minute after liftoff, the shuttle exploded, killing all seven people aboard, including a school teacher named Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected from thousands of applicants to take part in the Teacher in Space Project, NASA’s effort to send the first civilian teacher into space.

“I was in elementary school and they wheeled the television in,” Ekstrum said in a recent interview with the Mitchell Republic. “I will never forget it.”

The explosion was an emotional shock to the nation and many of the people who watched it happen live. And while Esktrum was understandably saddened about what occurred, she found herself admiring McAuliffe for her bravery and commitment to science and her students.

“Ever since then, I thought if I ever were a teacher, I would want to do that,” Ekstrum said.

Ekstrum will have a chance to work with NASA scientists and other experts when she takes part in the 2020 LiftOff Summer Institute in Houston, Texas. The program involves a week-long professional development training session for teachers that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics experiences by incorporating a space science theme supported by NASA missions. Teacher participants are provided with curriculum, materials, and experiences through hands-on activities and field investigations that will promote space science and enrichment activities for themselves and others.

As someone who has only been teaching full-time for two years after receiving her teaching credentials from Dakota Wesleyan University, the 45-year-old has dived head-first into bringing the world of science alive for her 96 students at Kimball Middle School.

“I really always have loved schools. It’s bizarre, I should have gone (to college) to be a teacher the first time. I love to learn, and teaching is the perfect job because I’m always learning something new,” Ekstrum said.

She teaches science to fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders, a subject she hoped to teach because of her own interest in the subject. Science itself was difficult for her during her own classroom experiences, but it was also the subject that held the most fascination to her.

Jennifer Ekstrum, teacher at Kimball, was selected to take part in the NASA LiftOff program. She was due to head to Houston in June, but COVID-19 delayed that to next year. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Jennifer Ekstrum, teacher at Kimball, was selected to take part in the NASA LiftOff program. She was due to head to Houston in June, but COVID-19 delayed that to next year. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“It was always my hardest subject, but I think that makes me a better teacher because it doesn’t come easy to me,” Ekstrum said. “But I love everything space science. I always have.”

Ekstrum applied for the Liftoff Summer Institute after hearing about it through the South Dakota Department of Education. She needed to go through an application process with the South Dakota Space Consortium in Rapid City, where applications were whittled down to a few finalists before selections for the program were made.

Her application to the program included her reasoning about the importance of a teacher from South Dakota being part of a space-based program. The state is far-removed from the traditional space and aeronautics industry centers of Washington, California, Texas and Florida, she said, and that can create a gulf between those interested in the subject and the places where space flight is a normal reality.

“I felt that it’s hard to get excited about it and knowledgeable enough about it to teach it,” Ekstrum said. “That was my biggest plea.”

While she has been selected as one of the 50 teachers to take part in the program, she will have to wait a little longer than expected to experience it. With the outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year, the 2020 institute was canceled and will be merged with the 2021 institute when it is expected to be held next year.

As part of the program, she will take part in presentations, work with astronauts, scientists and engineers as well as receive a tour of the space center in Houston. The experts will share materials and ideas for the teachers to take back to the classroom, as well as some training to enhance both their own and their students’ interest in space. She is particularly interested in becoming certified in identifying rocks that likely originated in meteorites that have crashed into Earth.

“We will be able to certify if it is from space,” Ekstrum said. “I love the thought of being able to identify things from outer space, because I’m also a bit of a rock hound. Rocks and mushrooms. I was kind of meant to be a science teacher.”

That may be something she can integrate into her classroom upon her return, but she said her students have already become more interested in space exploration since she became involved with the LiftOff program.

“We did some space science, and they were excited about all of it,” Ekstrum said. “What I’m looking forward to is what (the program) can give me some hands-on activities to do with my class. Just being there with astronauts and having those connections, I think they’ll be excited no matter what I bring back.”

It’s creating that tangible connection to what seems to be a far-off world that can really engage with the students, and it fires the imagination. That leads to further interest, which is what she wants to establish in her students.

“It’s hard to do hands-on things. I’m not really a textbook teacher, I want to do the hands-on things, and you don’t get that in college. I’m looking forward to the materials, demonstrations and what I can bring back to the classroom,” Ekstrum said.

The NASA space shuttle program was discontinued in 2011 after the final mission of the Atlantis. But with NASA recently partnering with SpaceX, a private company designing and building reusable rockets and space capsules, and once again launching astronauts into orbit from American soil, a new excitement is building up around space and its exploration, Ekstrum said.

Two American astronauts recently flew aboard a SpaceX capsule to the International Space Station, and plans are being floated to eventually send astronauts on a return trip to the moon and possibly beyond.

It’s an exciting time to be a science teacher interested in space, Ekstrum said, and she hopes what she learns during her time in Houston will help light the fires of imagination in her students, the potential next generation of space travelers. She said she would encourage other teachers to explore opportunities like the LiftOff program and ways to bring that excitement to the classroom.

“It can’t hurt to apply. I never suspected I would get in on my first time. But if you don’t apply, you have no chance,” Ekstrum said.