CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Oct. 14, 2014 – Committed to science and space education after attending Honeywell’s Space Academy for Educators, Southeast Missouri State University alumna Kaci Heins, of Flagstaff, Arizona, recently was awarded the 2014 Air Force Association National Aerospace Teacher of the Year.
“I was blown away,” she said of the award. “The last four years have been the best roller coaster ride, and I just want more. When I look back over the past 10 years of teaching, I see that when a door opened, I went through. No hesitation and no regrets. However, I could not have been a teacher of the year on my own. I thankfully have the support of my husband, family, friends, school, community, parents and students. I would not be here if they had not supported me and believed in my abilities as a teacher. I’m still on cloud nine though.”
As part of the award, she received $3,000, which she plans to use to get her scuba diving certification.
Currently, Heins teaches sixth grade science in Flagstaff, Arizona.
In 2010 Heins applied to Honeywell’s Space Academy for Educators, a space camp for teachers. They offered many hands-on experiences with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) lessons to take back to the classroom, engineering design challenges such as creating rockets, heat shields and an egg drop, and space simulations.
“It was great because we were in teams and we did all the space simulations that the kid campers get to do. It was an amazing experience. Because I had these experiences I wanted to transfer that to my classroom. Before space academy, I actually had no interest in space whatsoever.
“Honeywell’s Space Academy changed all that and changed my life personally and professionally. In the four years since that experience, I’ve transformed my curriculum. All aspects of the sixth grade science that I teach are tied to space science and engineering. Many of my resources come from NASA and they are free,” Heins says.
Heins, a Harrisburg, Illinois, native, earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with an emphasis in science and a Master of Arts in secondary education with an emphasis in technology from Southeast Missouri State University. She also participated in athletics while at Southeast.
“I fell in love with Southeast on a track/cross country recruiting visit. I loved the campus, the track team and all that the education program had to offer. It was between Southeast and Eastern Illinois University. Southeast offered me more scholarship money, but I also knew the instant I toured the campus that this is where I wanted to go to school. It was almost like love at first sight,” Heins says.
Attending Southeast prepared Heins for her future endeavors. She was able to connect with her professors, who prepared her for her career.
“I truly enjoyed getting up and going to school during the day and then I equally loved being a part of athletics and having practice in the afternoons. I learned to manage my time well and balance all of my responsibilities, which has transferred into my career. A lot of people call me ‘wonder woman’ because I balance a family, successful career and traveling across the country. Time management plus passion equals success in my book. It worked at Southeast and it is still working for me now,” Heins says.
Heins studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia, for her student teaching, through Southeast’s Renaissance program.
“I chose Melbourne, Australia, because they spoke English and it seemed like such a wonderful country. It was one of the highlights of my life. I loved experiencing a different type of school system. It was in my fourth grade classroom that I saw my first engineering design challenge when the students had to build working lighthouses from scraps. I was thinking, ‘I have to do this in my classroom! This is how science should be taught.’ From that point on, I never looked back. I don’t use textbooks — only hands-on project based activities to apply concepts learned. They had worm farms, weather stations, composting programs and so much more. I hope one day I can go back to Mt. Waverly North and see the school again. After that student teaching experience, I couldn’t wait to get into my own classroom. I highly encourage students to study abroad if they can to see how other school systems work,” Heins says.
“I like to share at conferences across the country and just spend time with my family,” she says. “My favorite thing to do is travel. I love to see new places and meet new people. I’ve learned over the years that talking to someone new could lead to amazing networking connections.
“Through simple conversations I’ve met people that worked on the first rockets to get us to space and engineers that worked on the Apollo spacecraft. I’ve met the current NASA administrator Charles Bolden, stood under space shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center, met numerous astronauts and took two of my sixth-grade female students on the floor of mission control at Johnson Space Center to meet the flight director. I love my life because I never know what exciting adventure is right around the corner,” Heins says.
Heins offers some advice to Southeast students.
“Live life to the fullest and dare mighty things,” she says. “You never know what you can accomplish unless you try. So when a door opens, get yourself through with no regrets. There will be hard times, but they will make you stronger, and there is always a life lesson to be learned. Go to class and take away as much as you can. Also, study abroad if you have the chance. It is such a wonderful adventure that will help you stand out in competitive job markets. It is great to have an international perspective in your field.”
She also advises students to work hard to achieve their goals.
“Nothing in life that is worth doing is easy,” she said. “I’ve worked really hard my entire life to get where I am today, and I look forward to whatever comes next. I don’t take things too seriously because life is too short.”