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Paul Duke STEM High School Teacher Beckie Fischer talks about her NASA Experience



Beckie FIscher at The ED Hour podcast

The ED Hour is back with an exciting episode with computer science teacher from Paul Duke STEM High School, Beckie Fischer. Beckie recently got accepted into an elite program to take a behind the scenes look at the programs at NASA. She’s here, along with our hosts Rico Figliolini and Alan Kaplan, to share everything she learned about this exciting program and how it works into her teaching.


There are some really neat lessons you can do in your classroom that help you bring home what it is that, you know, the space missions are all about… We basically just did a lot of hands on interactive activities with the NASA engineers to help us bring it home to our students, so that they understand it better.

Beckie Fischer

Rico: [00:00:30] Hi everyone. This is Rico Figliolini host of Peachtree Corners Life, but we have the Ed Hour today and I’m with host Alan Kaplan and it’s, yeah, there’s a, there’s a seven-second delay on this thing, but we’re here. Yes. Gotta love it. So by way of introduction, we are in a technology hub here in the city of Peachtree Corners, and we’re actually doing this podcast from Atlanta Tech Park in the city of Peachtree Corners at Tech Park Atlanta. It’s actually along the road of the autonomous vehicle track that’s known as Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners. It’s a place that we have this, this area is 5g, Sprint 5g compatible now throughout this whole tech park, and that’s the reason why this will be a hub for autonomous vehicles and smart city work through this live living lab. Because self-driving cars can come through this place where people are crossing roads, where there’s streetlights, where everything is an active real-life community.  So look out for those, those autonomous vehicles. But we’re working out of this podcast room here, and I appreciate Atlanta Tech Park for providing this to us. Alan, tell us a little bit about the Ed Hour. 

Alan: [00:01:40] Sure. Rico, it’s great to be back with you here on the Ed Hour. Excited that for those of you rejoining us, and if you’re viewing our show here for the first time, the purpose of the Ed Hour is to open the doors of our schools to the community so that the community can see the wonderful things that are happening there. The accomplishments of our teachers, the great things our students are doing, and the wonderful things happening in our schools every day. So glad to be able to bring this back. 

Rico: [00:02:07] We have a special guest today too. A teacher from Paul Duke STEM high school. She’s a computer science teacher. She had a great experience during the summer. We’ll let her explain that. But this is one of the reasons why she’s here because it ties in so well to Paul Duke STEM high school. So Becky Fisher, I appreciate you coming on the show. 

Becki: [00:02:25] Thank you. I was, looking online one day cause I’m very interested in getting a Raspberry PI lab going at my school and I was trying to find some ways that, we could, do like a coding club with Raspberry PIs. So I found out that they had this competition with Raspberry PIs on the space station actually, but the competition is only eligible in some countries in Europe. So I was really disappointed that I wasn’t able to get involved with that. But they actually do experiments and they run code on these Raspberry PIs on the space station the students do. So in looking into this further, I just on a limb it was, you know, close to the deadline to apply for this. I just said, let me just try this out and let me apply for this NASA experience. And about two weeks later I was accepted and I was just like beside myself because apparently there was over 500 applicants and they take 50 each summer. So, being a computer science teacher, this was kind of newly opened up to computer science teachers. It’s, usually, a lot of more science teachers that are doing it because they learn about all the ways that the science field is, being used in NASA. but they’re are opening up more to the math majors and computer science. And so I got accepted and I was able to bring back a lot to all the fields at my school. And I actually have some stuff to share with some of the other teachers. 

Alan: [00:03:48] Awesome. Well Becki, so we’re here to learn about your experience there. First we’d like to learn a little bit more about you, and leading up to this. So you’re a computer science teacher at Paul Duke, can you tell us a little bit how you got involved in your, your background in computer science before being at Paul Duke, and just kind of share that with us? 

Becki: [00:04:04] I’ve always been, really good with math and logic and, I wanted to go into computers. I originally went into the Navy out of high school. And I wanted to go into the computer field, but it just wasn’t a high need field at the time. It wasn’t, highly sought after. So, I had to go in and, you know, as an undesignated job. But eventually I got out and I went back to school and got a degree in computer science, and I was a programmer for a while. I ended up becoming a teacher later in life at age 33. I got into teaching through the alternative program to teach mathematics. I taught math for 11 years. And a couple years ago Dr Weatherington, the principal at Paul Duke, reached out to me and said he needed a computer science teacher and I was over the moon excited about that to be able to teach computer science full time. It was a

great opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. So here I am. I love it at Paul Duke.

Rico: [00:05:03] It’s amazing. Jonathan’s been able to get quite a few teachers over that are really, really good. And I think students really are making good use of that. 

Alan: [00:05:13] In fact, Jonathan was our first guest on the Ed Hour, so we’re glad to be able to kick it off with him. Glad to continue to discuss with the great things that are happening at Paul Duke. 

Rico: [00:05:23] Yeah. So how many, so you’re teaching computer science right now. Which for those people that, what does that mean? You’re Teaching computer programming? What are you teaching? 

Becki: [00:05:31] There are so many fields. We have actually, five teachers at our school that are certified in computer science education. And that is the certification that’s kind of fairly new to Georgia. And so they’re, they’re hard to find. But we have, that’s one of our main focuses. So we have several pathways. We have cybersecurity, we have a game design. we have, I teach the AP computer science pathway. So my students are learning mostly the programming. We would like to offer web development and, internet of things, which is, you know, it goes right along with the automated cars. I also run a vex robotics club after school. I’m the sponsor for the vex robotics. But we have, there’s so much potential as the school grows because right now it’s about, you know, the demand as far as how many students are interested in taking the classes, then we will offer them. But you know, with the small number of upper level kids at the time, we don’t have all the offerings, but I expect that we will be able to offer all the fields of computer science. 

Rico: [00:06:36] And when you’re talking about programming I’m just curious, what type of programming, which languages are you teaching?

Becki: [00:06:40] So, there’s two different AP computer science classes. One is just a general knowledge. They just have to understand the logic and we teach it with Scratch first. And then we’d go into some Java and we have an intro class where we use Scratch and Python. The third level, AP computer science class is all Java, they’re programming in Java from day one, every single day in class. So there’s actually two levels of AP computer science now. 

Rico: [00:07:08] Do you see kids coming, continuing on to school after that like a higher level? Do you see the kids wanting to, maybe. It may be too early, but get certified in programming and language and then move in right into the field? 

Becki: [00:07:21] I do. I think we’ve got some kids that are really capable of taking it to that level. And I mean, you know, we haven’t had any graduating class yet, so it’s hard to say. And the higher level AP computer science class, the one that’s the Java, there’s only 14 students in there. And, I think only 10 of those are seniors. But, they all seem like they’re very eager to go into computer. Some of them are into the robotics as well, but robotics involves programming too. It, you know, involves all the engineering, the physics and programming. So, these kids are definitely going somewhere with computer science and some way or STEM in general. 

Alan: [00:07:56] Yeah. Now y’all are also, I believe, teaching cyber security as well. Can you talk a little bit about that at Paul Duke?

Becki: [00:08:03] Yes, we have a computer cybersecurity pathway and, Phillip PD is teaching that pathway. It’s, definitely had a big interest this year. There was four sections of it because the students were very eager to do it. They also have a competition, Cyber Patriots. They compete to try to find all the vulnerabilities in a system, like all different systems, Linux, Windows, Server. These kids are learning how to safeguard networks and, the operating systems, making sure that, you know, the users have the strong passwords and just all the things that they need to know about. Keeping a system secure and we have a whole cyber security lab that is in the works. And the kids, the students will be able to actually try to keep a, a virtual system secure with, like they have like a secure, like the home security system set up in there and they’ll be able to make sure that, that all those pieces are not vulnerable to attacks. 

Rico: [00:09:05] Real life, real life applications. 

Becki: [00:09:07] Yes. There’s a real big interest for that.

We also have a select few students that are seniors this year that are taking courses with Mercer university and…

Rico: [00:09:18] That’s right, the FBI I think?

Becki: [00:09:19] Yes along with the FBI. And they’re getting two college credits this year by working with Mercer and that’s about as much as I can tell you about that, but I know that they are doing that on Fridays. Pretty tough, pretty nervous. 

Rico: [00:09:33] You guys also have, Paul Duke also has 3D printers. I’m sure that lots of program that goes into that as well. 

Becki: [00:09:38] Yes. We have, oh gosh, we have lots. We have laser cutters and, lots of printing capabilities. A lot of this equipment is still, you know, in the process of learning how to use it and getting students trained on how to use it. But we definitely have the capabilities to produce a lot of things for the community. 

Alan: [00:09:58] Have you all had any corporate sponsorships or partnerships with some of these programs, either cybersecurity or any others, or is that something you’re? 

Becki: [00:10:06] I’m not aware of that right now. 

Alan: [00:10:08] It does sound like a good opportunity though, for corporations involved in this field. With like cybersecurity, to be able to engage as the FBI has, you know, our young minds. 

Rico: [00:10:18] There are all sorts of companies. You have Simply Safe out there selling home safety security systems. Could be, should be a sponsor of a STEM school, a program that, that helps protect from hacking. All sorts of IOT type stuff. 

Alan: [00:10:32] So for any of you listening that are maybe what percent of those companies maybe spread the word there. Because you know, this is the future of your industries being trained here at Paul Duke high schools. So, we’d love to see more of this partnerships come into the school. 

Becki: [00:10:47] Our students also are required to do internships their senior year. So if any of those companies are looking for, you know, to get some students out there and get trained and get some of that requirement that they need from our school, we would love that too.

Rico: [00:11:01] And I think the way that’s being handled is that they’re being interviewed. So they’re not just, corporations can actually interview students to see if they match up with their programs and stuff. Is the way I thought it was being done.

Becki: [00:11:13] I’m not sure.

Rico: [00:11:15] So, but so you’ve been, you know, science is a big thing for you, right? Are your kids into that too, by the way? Just curious. 

Becki: [00:11:23] My, I have a son that’s 25 and he is a computer programmer. He graduated from Georgia Southern and he was hired by AT&T right out of college. He actually did internships the two summers before he graduated. So yeah, it’s definitely a field that is, is hot. I mean, programming and cybersecurity both are highly sought after. I also have a daughter that’s a senior. She’s in my programming class and she’s really, really good at it. But she wants to do early education. So yeah, you’ve got to let your kids do what they want. 

Alan: [00:11:55] It’s still a family business for you, right? 

Becki: [00:11:57] She says she’ll probably still do like some afterschool coding to kind of get the early kids, which I think is important. I mean, kids need to learn the logic of programming at an early age. I think kindergartners can learn how to start coding and just understanding the, the problem solving process of it. And, you know, as she got into teaching the early kids and, you know, I think actually in Georgia, they’re trying to push it from K through 12. To have it, part of their curriculum to learn some of the standards of computer science. Not just programming, but just being technology savvy. Understanding how to work your way on computer and understand how to keep it safe. 

Rico: [00:12:34] And there’s also another thing they’re doing too, instead of language being

French or German or Spanish, they’re talking about putting computer language as a language.

Becki: [00:12:43] It is and that’s actually what my daughter is doing. That’s her foreign language.

Rico: [00:12:47] Is that her foreign language? Because I mean, really. Do we need someone learning, you know, speaking French. If they could do, take the same credit for doing computer programming. I mean, if that’s what they want, right? 

Alan: [00:12:58] And you know, my fourth grader at at Peachtree elementary, he’s on robotics team there and he’s on another team that assists with technology in the school.

It’s called the SWAT team. Students working at technology or something like that. And so I’m glad to see that at the elementary school level, they’re doing more today than even two years ago in terms of engaging kids in technology into robotics and…

Rico: [00:13:24] Even doing like, I mean, they’re doing PowerPoint presentations where you didn’t see that until like the end of middle school and high school.They’re doing that in elementary school. 

Alan: [00:13:31] My son just showed me one last night. Son, how do you do this?

Rico: [00:13:34] This is funny, and then Photoshop. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s shifted down the learning way more at, it’s such a small age.

Alan: [00:13:47] Well you know, Becky, so let’s maybe get into your experience here over at NASA. It sounds like an amazing opportunity. it sounds like it was a very selective program with just 10% of the applicants getting accepted. And as you and I were chatting a little bit earlier, I believe you said traditionally, applicants for this program came out of Texas, primarily in there.

There was very few of, any from, from Georgia. So kind of tell us a little bit more about, ultimately, how you have the edge there to, to get in. And then what your experiences were once, once you got there.

Becki: [00:14:20] Yeah. I definitely would like to see more teachers from Georgia to apply for next year because it is absolutely incredible. They treated us, pretty much like royalty. I mean, I’m not going to lie, it was exhausting because we were busy from the moment we got there from Sunday at lunchtime until Friday night. It was nonstop. I went to bed tired every night, had to get up early the next morning. But we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided every day. We had really nice dinners. It was a grant so, the hotel was paid for. The whole experience was paid for, but being from Georgia I just had to get my flight paid for. It was, it was way more than I ever expected when I got to meet some of the most incredible people that were involved in the Apollo 11. And I got to meet Fred Hayes. He was one of the astronauts on the famous Apollo 13 that almost didn’t make it. He was amazing. And, one of the men that was one of the engineers for all the Apollo missions. Just giving us his take on the behind the scenes and what it took to make those flights successful. We got to talk with lots of engineers from NASA and they showed us. We did a lot of cute lessons that it’s not the right thing, but there are some really neat lessons you can do in your classroom that help you bring home what it is that, you know, the space missions are all about. You know, how we are sending robots to Mars and how we can take pictures of Mars and determine if there is, like water and if there’s wind. And just by the, just by the images we were able to decide, you know, was this a volcanic situation? Was this wind that caused this? We also did this really fun activity, which one of our science teachers at my school was doing just recently. We had to design these, little packages basically, like if you’re trying to land a robot on Mars, but you had to build something with just the right weight and design so that we could fly a drone and lay it in a particular location. Because when we send those robots to Mars, we want it to go on a certain location, you know, you gotta land it safely. You want it in this particular spot because there’s different, you know, places that we want to explore. So in our activity, we not only had to design this package that would land safely, but then we had to fly the drone and landed in that spot, which I find those drones was not my thing. I definitely had to pass that onto my partner, but filling was fruitful. We basically just did a lot of hands on interactive activities with the NASA engineers to just help us bring it home to our students so that they understand it better. And I’m definitely happy to share. I have all the lesson plans that we got for the weekend. Then sharing with some of our science teachers, and then there’s also the computer science that goes in with it. As far as, we did Makey Makey, these little devices that you can have interactive touch and it can, you know, identify parts of something like parts of a body or whatever. So, just really neat little activities to bring home, but mostly being behind the scenes. Being at Johnson space center, being in the mission control and watching the, space station live while sitting with people. We, in the past, apparently they would take them to the old Apollo mission control and they would actually get to do that, but because this was our 50th anniversary, they were remodeling it to look like it used to. Never get to go to the mission control that they use for the Apollo missions. I was kind of sad by that, but it was also neat that that was the reason that they were doing it.

Alan: [00:18:27] So what of, what you learned there in addition to the lessons. What, what surprised you or something that you didn’t know, about NASA or something that occurred?

Becki: [00:18:38] I really never thought that going to Mars was really something that was happening. I just, I honestly thought that was a joke that we’re trying to get to Mars, but we really are, we are really trying to. You get tomorrow. I was, I’m really surprised by that. I learned about a lot of the strategies that they’re looking at and how they’re gonna put a station that’s going to revolve around the moon and then that’s going to refueling and everything, how long it’s going to take to get there. And, it was really fascinating. And that, you know, I learned about all the different, robots that have been placed on Mars and why they’re there. 

Alan: [00:19:17] In fact, I think just a, I think it was yesterday I saw a news article where they had oxygen levels that were unexpected on Mars. There were some tests that they had gotten back and there was a spike in oxygen levels where they didn’t expect to, to see.

Rico: [00:19:32] The different landers have different missions too. So some of them dig, like the last one, I think they sent, I should say dug into the soil to be able to take samples. But, so every mission has a different, different mission to be able do different science to be able to do that.

Alan: [00:19:49] And I think that according to the article said, the Curiosity Rover that found unexplained oxygen on Mars. So hopefully we’ll explain it, so the mystery continues and hopefully in our lifetime and the fact that you get an indication of in our life.

Rico: [00:20:03] If Elon Musk has any, we’re going to be able to, you know, go there. And about five years, he said he’s already planning a tourism mission to the moon within a year. So, I mean, we need more people like Elon Musk. 

Alan: [00:20:19] From being there what’s your perspective? Either one of us being, someone being on the moon in our lifetime or being on Mars. 

Becki: [00:20:26] Apparently we are going back to the moon in 2024

Rico: [00:20:32] I think that’s the, yeah, that’s the goal, 2024. This is what Donald Trump said, set as the mission for NASA program.

Becki: [00:20:40] I heard it from some of the engineers at NASA that 2024 is our goal to get back to the moon and they actually, I saw the, it’s called the Orianne that they’ve designed and it’s going to be a capsule, very similar to. what they used to use. I guess in Apollo missions. Yeah. It’s a pyramid, but roundish but, it’s going to go in, went back in the ocean young, so like the old way. But it’s, they have a replica of one in the museum that we went to, basically the museum that we went to has all the parts of the international space center. In there, not put together exactly like the space station, but they have replicates of each compartment so that the astronauts can train and get a feel for what it’s like. And, so there was the Orianne, which I guess is how you say, ORION I may be saying it wrong, but. 

Rico: [00:21:35] I think you’re right, Orianne or Orion. 

Becki: [00:21:41] Right. So yeah, I’m not good with my pronunciations here, but that’s the model that they are designing that’s going to get back to the moon. 

Alan: [00:21:51] Did they indicate when they thought we would have a man or woman on Mars?

Becki: [00:21:56] On Mars. I don’t remember hearing an actual…

Rico: [00:22:00] I think NASA’s mission right now is to get to the moon first, use the gateway, which is like the space station that orbits the moon, get them to land on the moon, and then eventually hop tomorrows, which is what, six, a period of six or eight months travel. To Mars is what it does in deep space. So away from my magnetic system of the earth. So you’re, you could be shot blasted with solar, wind from the sun, and all sorts of nasty stuff going on. but again, if Elon Musk had his way, we’d be there in about six years and, and to the moon, we’d have like the old, take the rockets from the 50 Sci-fi movies and just landed on the moon like that and take it back off. That’s what he wants to do with this star ship.

Alan: [00:22:46] So, back to our students at Paul. Do among our other schools in particular, our STEM schools. It’ll be, you know, then maybe that generation that in their lifetime sees the reality of today’s dreams. So being on Mars.

Rico: [00:23:00] With everything going on, I mean, when you spoke to the, like the astronauts, right? The, the guys that have been out there, every time I hear an interview from one of them, or I read one of the books from one of the guys, forget the guy that does the guitar thing. Was he there? He’s a funny, you got to see some of the YouTube videos for what’s his name or can’t recall his name right now. He had some really great insights. 

Becki: [00:23:29] He was the engineer for the Apollo Missions.

Rico: [00:23:35] There’s so many talented people that you would not think, you know, when people stereotype these engineers as white shirted people, but you know, the, the white shirt, white guy maybe being the, yes, that was good, I think. but there’s so many talented people is such a diversity of, of people, that work for the space program. But did they share any insight with you that things that they, that, you know, you might not have realized up in space?

Becki: [00:24:02] And, well, there was one engineer that believes that we are going to be able to, find a cure for cancer in space in our lifetime. I don’t know how that’s exactly happening, but with some of the tests and stuff that they’re doing up there, they believe that they will.

Being able to find a cure for cancer in our lifetime. Yeah, there, there’s so much information. Like I was blown away with the things that, that I learned that I honestly had no, no idea that was actually going on with NASA. You know, I just thought we were just exploring space, but, and then I, you know, learned about the twin, that went up in space and then they compare the two brothers. Can’t remember his name but a lot of the teachers that were there had already heard about it. Unfortunately I have not, but now I’ve been watching that Mars series on Netflix starting to learn more about it now. It’s very interesting.

Alan: [00:25:00] Kind of the impact to the body.

Becki: [00:25:02] And apparently his DNA actually changed. Like it was…

Rico: [00:25:09] It’s almost like evolution, right? It was evolving to be able to stay in space. 

Becki: [00:25:13] Eventually it went back to normal after a while, but when we first came home. So they’re interesting. The things that they learned from that.

Rico: [00:25:22] He got taller too, but then it shrunk when he arrived. After a few weeks, he shrunk, we was shrinking. 

Alan: [00:25:26] I’m shrinking but that’s just getting older.

Rico: [00:25:29] Don’t we all.

Becki: [00:25:32] You know, I didn’t realize that being up in space all that time without the gravity, that when you come back, you can’t even walk. You know, that they just pretty much have to carry you off your ship until you can get yourself.

Rico: [00:25:46] And even clothes, because of the weightlessness, when you’re back on earth, you’re feeling the fabric rubbing against the skin is supposed to be really more sensitive to that type of thing.

Alan: [00:25:59] But the whole evolution piece, that’s interesting, right? I think a thousand years from now, right? When, when living elsewhere besides earth is reality, whether it be the moon or Mars or wherever else that, the DNA can change in that short period of time, it actually evolves when you’re living. Your whole life. 

Rico: [00:26:14] So, so imagine you go to Mars, you’re a colonist. Yeah. They have 15 years, and then you come back. Are you a Martian? Does your DNA change? You know, how does that work? So, so what did you tell your kids? I mean, were you able to share some of that stuff with them? How, how does that?

Becki: [00:26:31] They, you know, some of them were like, Oh wow, that’s cool, but I don’t think that they, Realize the, impact that it really has to be able to go there and to be behind the scenes with all. So, yeah, I didn’t quite get the enthusiasm from the kids as much as I do for most of the adults that come out that I was going on the rest of us geeks. 

Rico: [00:26:49] So, but were you able to then apply maybe some of the stuff that you learned? I mean, you, you apply to in different things.

Becki: [00:27:00] So a lot of the stuff that we learn is really geared more towards the sciences, the physics, and the chemistry. And, Yeah. And some engineering classes. So I have shared that stuff. I have a teacher who teaches the earth, or she teaches environmental science. And, I

was able to share with her the whole lesson plan with, being able to identify the images from Mars and matching up what type of, you know. Whether weather or you know, whatever might have caused it, land formations. And of course the physics teacher, she was like asking me, she’s like, so we’re doing this thing about Mars. Is there something that you learned and on like, Oh my God, she got to do these drones. Then you have a whole drones team and they go and compete. So one of the guys that’s really good with flying the drones is helping her out with, you know, flying the drones for little pieces that they’re building and, you know, trying to get it on the target. There are definitely some more things that I would like to implement in my class. Probably more next semester. as far as, my computer science class because the Makey Makey, the more hands on programming, I, you know, the, maybe I’m the sponsor for the Vex robotics and we also have a first robotics team as well. When I went to the museum with the ISS and there, they have a whole section with, replicas of the robots and stuff. And, the kid that was given us a tour was a 20 year old kid who was on our first robotics team when he was in high school and he’s just interning there. He was so young, I was like, you’re really right out of high school, aren’t you? And then, he, I said, did you do robotics in high school? Cause he was like, so in today’s, and he’s like, yeah, I did first robotics and they actually have a first robotics, set up inside the ISS museum. But he has one of his robots in there on display. It’s something that he won a first place prize when he was in high school.

Like a little spider bot. So it was neat to talk to this kid who was, you know, just 20 years old, still in college and interning there. And in the NASA tour. I also met somebody at the, the neutral buoyancy lab who was also in, fresh, like in his young 20s or whatever. And I was asking him and, he’s a scuba diver and so I’m scuba diver certified. My husband, he is for like 20 years. And so I went and secretly got certified a couple of, or three years ago so that we could do it together. So when we went to the neutral buoyancy lab, I was like, Oh, this is so cool. Cause she didn’t have all these, like for every astronaut, they have to have five scuba divers assigned to each astronaut that gets down there to keep them, you know, just to make sure that, I don’t know, just whatever they have to do to me and, but to even just put the astronauts in there because the suit itself weighs. So much, which is something I didn’t realize either. They have to have a crane to put them down into the water and then they’re, they have like a replica of this international space center in that big pool. So that was, something that I found interesting that, you know, you could just go in there as a scuba diver and, be helping the astronauts. My daughter also has, she’s 17, and she got certified along with me too, so it’s like go to NASA help the astronauts. Yeah. 

Alan: [00:30:11] I’m going to go home today and tell my a nine year old son here that’s in robotics now. So see you, you stay with this. You can be that intern over at NASA or, or something else.

Becki: [00:30:22] I also found out that there were teachers who had done this program and then they ended up, getting hired to go work there. There’s, there’s one teacher that was giving us a tour he had done a program. Before and then being and not interested in. Yeah. He applied and now he’s working.

Alan: [00:30:39] And then I think we talked about this earlier. I think there’s a, you know, one of the graduates of Norcross high school, works for space X.

Rico: [00:30:42] Worked for space X. Yeah. She was on the marching band. I think we did a

story on some of, where are these kids from? The marching band and that’s where she went to space X

Alan: [00:30:56] You know, and, and I would even say no to any of the students that should happen on this podcast. You know, kind of listen to what’s being, what you’re hearing today because you’re sitting in a classroom at high school now, whether it’s all new from Norcross or another high school, and, this is you, potentially just a few years. It should, you want to go that path. So it’s certainly within your, your reach and your grasp. And it sounds like and did Paul Duke, and, and, and the other schools. There’s the tools there to educate for tomorrow’s workforce, to be able to go in that direction, if that’s what interests. 

Rico: [00:31:27] I mean, with, with the things that Becky has been sharing with us today, I mean, drones, robotics, programming, all that stuff goes into that. Right? And then you’re talking about, Forget about the biodiversity. Well, the things that go into taking us to the moon and even taking us tomorrow is how, how physically your body can be traumatized in a, in a journey like that. And so biology and medicine, it’s all well part and parcel. You don’t have to be a, a, an astronaut or a rocket scientist. Did you know that the state of Georgia actually has a spaceport in Campton County, but that they’ve tried to, they have a budget there and we have some sort of, I guess the state has some sort of space Bureau or something, but, but Campton County is trying to be the space port of Georgia. It’s located near the County. And they want to be able to get rockets shooting off there. So can you imagine, I mean, every state wants to be able to have their own space port and their own space technology.

Becki: [00:32:24] Dieticians, you know, horticulture, all that. We have to be able to grow plants and grow our own food. If we’re going to be out there for a long time. 

Rico: [00:32:36] And even like you said before, if we’re going to find the cure to cancer or how are they going to do that without a biologist or chemist or a physician, being up there. That’s why the crew tends to be a variety of people, right? Military physicians, biologists, teachers think we had to teach a couple of teachers up there at one point. So would you maybe be a teacher going up there? It’s exciting.

Becki: [00:33:06] I would think it’s exciting up there, but a lot of behind the scenes down here.

Rico: [00:33:12] Did they talk? Did they talk about what they expect? Students, what type of students they would like to see? 

Becki: [00:33:18] They want a variety. I mean, they want all kinds of, I mean, so many skillsets that are involved in the whole thing. I mean, it’s, it’s all about our way of life. I mean, know how we survive it. It takes everything. I had a, there was a slide that I saw recently that was looking at, and it had all the different job fields that are needed, and it’s just so many that you wouldn’t even expect that NASA needs, the list is endless.

Rico: [00:33:46] Really, so it’s not just scientists. It’s amazing. What, you know, what you actually did according to this, you did some augmented reality too. I was going to ask you about that. How was that?

Becki: [00:33:59] Oh yes, I forgot. That was one of my favorite things. We actually, they have this simulated lab where, you’re trying to, it’s called mission to man and mission to Mars, and it’s almost like an escape room kind of situation where everybody has a role. And I was in charge of the robots support. That’s the one I picked and we had to switch. So I was, at first, I was in the command center and I was having to give directions to the people who were operating the robots on the ship. but she had the people that were, you know, testing this or that. And, we had these manuals that we had to follow and if something happened, we had to look in the manual to see, you know, how to handle that situation. And everything was critical. It was timely. It was tense. It was intense. But, It was fun and it was like a nice little escape room. Then we had to switch and the ones who were in the command center ended up on the ship. And then, you know, we switched roles. And so I got to try to operate these robotic arms to try to do these little test tubes cause there is these things that I can’t, you know, you have to use the robotic arms because you can’t, you have to keep that environment clean. So you’re having these controls to get these test tubes and do this and that. And it was not easy. And they’re giving us instructions on what to do. And I’m like, oh, okay. Well, how am I going to get this to work? And, but it was fun. It was just, it was such a neat team building activity. Yeah, that was probably my favorite part. And I, I’ve got, I’ve done a lot of researching on how to do different escape rooms, like digitally and physically and I, when I have the time, I want to put one together for my own students too.

Rico: [00:35:40] Try to bring it home, then. That would be cool. I’ve been in a couple of escape rooms and they don’t sound fun until you actually get into them. And then you realize how fun.

Becki: [00:35:49] That’s just a plain digital one, like a website, digital breakout, and that was pretty successful. But I’ve bought some lockboxes and different types of locks, and I’m like the invisible paint and the fluorescent lights. So I really would like to try to make my own escape room.

Alan: [00:36:06] One of the best ways to help make sure a child’s learning is to capture their imagination. And an interest. It sounds like, that the enthusiasm that you gained from being there really translated back to your classroom, to your students. 

Becki: [00:36:25] Yeah. 

Alan: [00:36:26] So what’s, what’s next for you? What, what new experience for you, or is there an opportunity to stay engaged either through some type of programming, with NASA? Is there any opportunity to, 

Becki: [00:36:37] They do have an alumni, that I can apply for. I think they get Florida for the alumni one. But this past summer I did get to do two weeks of professional development here at home. And then I did a professional development in Houston with NASA, and I also did a professional development with Stanford university. So my summer was really busy this last summer, so promised my husband the end. Plus I got married, we had two vacations, and I got married. It was a really, really busy summer. It was great and it was fun and I learned so much. But this next summer. I think I want to take a break. But I would love to see other teachers apply for it and see more representation from Georgia. So, the application is currently open. We could probably kind of show a link to the 2020….

Rico: [00:37:25] I can put it into the show notes

Becki: [00:37:29] So, and I believe the deadline is March 2nd. So you apply for the 2020 summer if other teachers are interested.

Rico: [00:37:36] Plenty of time, and for those adults that would like to go, or the teenage kids or even middle school kids, there’s something called space camp in Florida, in the Orlando based a NASA program. So you can go there for a weekend sleepover and it’s run by NASA. It’s actually, I’m sorry, in Huntsville, Alabama at their facilities. 

Alan: [00:37:58] Actually, my son and I were there. For I think just a weekend with, with Cub

Scouts. So it was a great opportunity, but nothing, nothing like what you had the experience. You are really behind the scenes. We were just kind of there with the scamp and we got to experience, there was well beyond answering the question of how astronauts got to the restroom in space. 

Rico: [00:38:22] That’s a fun question to ask.

Alan: [00:38:33] There’s the one question they’re asking 

Rico: [00:38:35] It’s a potty question, everyone wants to hear a potty question.

Alan: [00:38:37] It’s always the question. But you had so much more insight. into what’s going on there. So for example, you know, the food production, how did they make the food and what goes into that?

Becki: [00:38:46] Yes, they also, when we went to the food lab, they talked about how they have to try to spice it up because the food is so flavorless and the Astronauts they really want some more flavor.

Alan: [00:39:01] See there’s, there’s another job. I would volunteer to be a food taster.

Rico: [00:39:11] No nut allergies please. 

Alan: [00:39:13] So it, you know, I think a great benefit, again, as you being at it come back in addition, what you shared to be able to share these stories with your students to really engage them and get them interested in, in the subject areas that you teach that are directly related to your experience. Any feedback from your students or what, when you brought this back to your, to your students, what, what were their reactions in, in what we saw, what you shared? 

Becki: [00:39:39] I think our students at Paul Duke STEM are just, they’re so eager to learn so much. They get, they go above and beyond whenever we show them something, they take it. And, they have done some amazing stuff. I have a, I’m trying to build a Raspberry PI lab and, I have some kids that come in after school. I actually had a girl that wanted to take one home today.

Alan: [00:40:05] Explain what a Raspberry PI is

Becki: [00:40:07] Sorry, I forgot about that. Okay. So Raspberry PI is a small. $35, computer. It’s, all the operating system in store. I just want a tiny little SIM card and, but it can operate on its own. So if you want to program some internet of things or like a, animatronic or. Something that you want mechanical, for lights or anything that you want to do standalone, but you don’t want to have to have a whole computer hooked up to it. You can program with the Raspberry PI, all kinds of sensors. You have cameras and lights and motion. so the students are coming to the lab and learning how they can program it to respond to either a button press or a motion sensor, you know, make the buzzer go off. This is something that is by. I recently got a scanner and a fingerprint scanner, so we’re going to learn how to program the fingerprint scanner. But there’s so many capabilities with the Raspberry PI itself because it’s just a tiny little computer that you can, connect to internet of things. Do you have like a project that doesn’t have to have a whole computer with it? And it’s relatively inexpensive. So, my kids are pretty much, my students are learning what they can do with this Raspberry PI and just trying different DIY is that they find on the internet. We recently put together a, Google. What do you call it? Like a Google assistant? Yeah. It’s like a little cardboard more, but it’s got the Raspberry PI inside. It’s got a little microphone and speaker and you say, Hey, Google. And it responds just like a Google system. So they actually put this together, made it.

And so the girl that wanted to take it home, she took that home today so she could continue playing with it over the Thanksgiving break. but these kids are coming up with some amazing stuff. We have this, Grinch production happening, I, I feel heard about. 

Rico: [00:41:59] Yes. 

Becki: [00:42:00] We have our mechatronics, that is working with the, dancing theater to, make it. Honestly, I haven’t seen all the behind the scenes yet, but, it’s going to be fascinating, just the, the capabilities that we have to explore with things the equipment that we have.

To be able to make things and create and, just go beyond where you apply their creativity and expertise.

Alan: [00:42:25] And that’s going to be incorporated into the production?

Becki: [00:42:27] Yes. The Grinch will have some… 

Rico: [00:42:30] Technical, technical surprises. 

Alan: [00:42:33] No, but it’s, it’s great. So, so, but I love that because here you have maybe the kids that would be your, just towards the arts, but we’re in a STEM school. So it’s logical that there should be a strong technology component, even in the arts, which you wouldn’t typically find. So that’s…

Becki: [00:42:50] It’s amazing now with technology is the capability of arts that you can do with technology. It, it takes the arts to a whole new level now where you don’t have to just have somebody who’s really good at their hands if they just have their creative mind. The technology assistance is, is unbelievable.

Rico: [00:43:08] And it all goes down to scientists like DaVinci, like Steve jobs. I mean, if you don’t know nature, if you don’t know art, it’s kind of hard to bring that science to the right place, right to the use. 

Becki: [00:43:23] So it’s kind of neat that right now my students are doing drawings and animations and Java, they’re having to do shapes and color. You know, just be able to use the geometry aspect and, understand how to do the RGB colors and manipulate the shapes and how to program them to move around the screen. 

Rico: [00:43:44] Cause that’s the beginning, the beginning of the game map, you know, at some point, you know, programming that stuff like that. We’ve reached the end of our time. this has been fun though. It’s learning all this stuff.

Alan: [00:43:57] It’s been out of this world.

Rico: [00:43:58] And that, and I liked that Raspberry PI. I thought we were talking about real pie at some point. But, this, this was cool doing this. You know, I appreciate you coming out Becki.

Becki: [00:44:09] Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Alan: [00:44:11] And, and again, we’re, we’re just glad to know that you’re in our schools, and not sitting just behind a computer somewhere or a company that you’re actually sitting at your desk in our schools is giving our children the tools to be the future. So certainly grateful for that.

Rico: [00:44:29] And it’s been good to see you, Alan. Been awhile. Glad we were able to do the show.

Alan: [00:44:35] Absolutely. So we have some other good plans for guests coming up. 

Rico: [00:44:38] We’ll be doing those on a regular basis. At least once a month. And Alan has some things going on in his life with his kids and stuff. And we’ll be interviewing you actually on Peachtree Corners Life at some point. So we answered a question at that point. So, Look forward to, I should say, look forward to Peachtree corners magazine. That’s going to be coming out. It’s hitting the post office Friday, so it’ll be in homes this weekend and through next week. The cover story is 20 under 20 we asked for nominations of kids that people felt should get recognition for a variety of reasons. And we got 35 plus nominations, I believe in. We picked 20. It was tough to pick those 20. We have photo shoots and stuff. We have stories about them. So that’s the, a page pullout in the center of the magazine that’s coming we also have several other stories in there, some good strong features. So pick up the publication. If you don’t, you should get it in the mail. Every household in the city of Peachtree Corners gets that magazine in the mailbox, but you’ll find it at places like Ingle’s, Dunkin donuts, restaurants, in town center, in a variety of other places, library and stuff. Every school gets it.

So look for that. We are launching a new, a giveaway too, which just so then people know this can go to living in PeachtreeCorners.com on the 25th and you’ll see the weekend staycation giveaway, thousand dollars in prizes to stay at home. Well, stay in the city of Peachtree corners anyway and enjoy dinner. Maybe a suite at the Hilton, breakfast at First Watch, dinner at Grace 1720 there’s a variety of, of, of prizes. So yes, look for that.

Alan: [00:46:12] Well again thank you. Thank you. Thanks Rico. Great to, great to be back with it.

Rico: [00:46:16] Same here. See you guys.

Alan: [00:46:17] Take care.

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Cobb Global Outreach Grants 3 Scholarships to Duluth High School Students



Non-profit Cobb Global Outreach (CGO) Inc., has announced the recipients of three scholarship to exceptional students at Duluth High School.
(left to right) Cassandra Norris, Neev Seedani and Anh Loan Vu

Cobb Global Outreach (CGO) Inc., a prominent non-profit organization dedicated to community empowerment and educational support, has announced the recipients of three scholarships, each valued at $1,000, to exceptional students at Duluth High School.

The winners are Cassandra Norris, Neev Seedani, and Anh Loan Vu. These scholarships symbolize CGO’s commitment to fostering academic achievement and nurturing the future leaders of society.

The scholarship recipients, chosen for their outstanding academic performance, exemplary leadership qualities and significant contributions to their community, embody the spirit of perseverance and dedication. Each student has demonstrated remarkable potential and a strong commitment to positively impacting their local community and beyond.

“We are thrilled to award these scholarships to such deserving students from Duluth High School,” said Bobby Cobb, Founder and CEO of CGO. “Education is a cornerstone of empowerment, and we believe in investing in the next generation’s success. These scholarships represent our organization’s dedication to supporting youth in pursuing higher education and their dreams.”

The $1,000 scholarship awards will provide invaluable financial assistance to the recipients as they continue their educational journey beyond high school. CGO remains steadfast in its mission to provide opportunities and resources for individuals to thrive and succeed, regardless of their background or circumstances.

For more information about Cobb Global Outreach and its initiatives, please visit cobbglobaloutreachinc.com.

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Gwinnett County School Board Race Determined in May Elections, Q&A with 4 District 3 Candidates



There are many candidates on the school board ballot. District 3, which includes Peachtree Corners, has five contenders for the seat.
Photo by Freepik

Five candidates vie for District 3 School Board seat this May 21

If you decide to sit out the May primary and instead wait for the “big” election in November, you’ll be doing yourself and your community a disservice.

Although Congressional seats and the next leader of the free world will be decided, many local races will have a greater impact on day-to-day lives.

During a town hall meeting on March 24, Peachtree Corners City Councilman Eric Christ reminded residents that if they don’t vote on May 21, they’ll have no say in who represents them on the Gwinnett County Board of Education.

There are many candidates on the school board ballot. District 3, which includes Peachtree Corners, has five contenders for the seat vacated by long-time board member Dr. Mary Kay Murphy.

Christ pointed out that the nonpartisan race will be decided during the primary without endorsing a party or a candidate. County judges will also be elected.

Another unique aspect of this election is that there is no Republican candidate for county district attorney. So, those who show up on May 21 and request a Republican or independent ballot will have no say in who the next Gwinnett County district attorney will be.

“Some people think that if they say, ‘I’m nonpartisan,’ they’ll get to vote for either party,” said Christ. “It doesn’t work that way. They will only see judges and the school board on their ballot.”

So, in this particular race, if you have a strong opinion for or against someone in the county district attorney race, you will only be able to vote if you have a Democrat ballot.

For those looking to cast their votes on or before May 21, Southwest Gwinnett Magazine has sent a set of questions to all the school board candidates in District 3, asking their opinions about matters of education and school system governance.

Four of the five candidates replied.

Question #1: Why do you want to be a school board member?

Yanin Cortes: I am running for school board because I want a bright future for our communities and future generations. The reason why I moved to Peachtree Corners and decided to raise my family here 18 years ago was because of the school system and its reputation for providing a world-class education.

Gwinnett, for many years, has been a beacon of light for world-class education in the state of GA. Lately, however, we have seen our differences divide us. Our county is a mosaic with a diversity of appearances, opinions, and visions for the future.

I believe that our strength lies in our ability to unite for a common purpose. There is no greater purpose than the education and future of our children. I’m committed to becoming the bridge connecting the school board and our communities, amplifying our voice, fostering consensus and constructing a world-class school system.

As your representative on the school board my commitment will be to seek common ground not a political agenda. I will always prioritize our children and teachers over personal ambitions, concentrating on the essentials: student achievement, school safety, teacher support and community involvement.

Yanin Cortes

Domonique Cooper: Having lived in Gwinnett County for the past twelve years, I’m passionate about giving back to our community by serving on the school board. My goal is to build a strong, unified team where the school board and community work together. 

I’m committed to excellence in Gwinnett County Schools, and I believe my experience can be a valuable asset to our students, staff and stakeholders.

Domonique Cooper

Steve Gasper: I’m running for school board to do what I can to help restore our faith and belief in our public schools and to continue the great work I’ve done so far at GCPS over the past nearly four years.

Steve Gasper

Shana V. White: As a third-generation teacher, I’m running because I believe it is time for an educator with K12 pedagogy experience and instructional knowledge to serve on the board to better meet the changing needs of K12 public schools and classrooms to support the creation of equitable, inclusive, safe and quality learning environments district-wide to meet the diverse needs of Gwinnett County students.

Shana V. White

Question #2: Besides a desire to serve and help further the education of local children, what skills, experience, etc., do you bring to the table that makes you qualified?

Yanin Cortes: I am a mother, a former teacher in Gwinnett County Public Schools, and a small business owner.

As a teacher at Shiloh High School, I experienced and witnessed the same concerns and issues that our students, teachers and faculty still encounter every day.

As the owner of three restaurants here in Peachtree Corners and Norcross, I understand the level of hard work and dedication it takes to achieve success. I have learned through serving a diverse workforce and customer base that it is necessary to come together and find common ground to achieve success.

I believe that my experiences as a teacher and a business owner give me a unique, yet valuable skill set tailored to the job of a school board member.

Once elected, I will work to build consensus on the board to ensure that we, as a school board, are a productive and functional governing body that puts the interests of our students and staff first. I will put my breadth of experiences as a GCPS educator, local business owner, and an engaged and concerned parent into every decision I make on the board.

Domonique Cooper:  From my time in the Federal Government, I possess expertise in data management, policy planning and fiscal development – skills crucial for navigating school board budgets and ensuring efficient operations.

As a Gwinnett County Public Schools substitute teacher, I honed my classroom management skills, effectively interpreting lesson plans and crafting reports to benefit student progress. This experience gives me invaluable insight into the daily lives of our teachers and students.

My entrepreneurial experience fostered strong communication, salesmanship, and strategic thinking.  I can leverage these skills to build relationships with parents, advocate for our schools, and find creative solutions to educational challenges.

Additionally, as an educational strategist, I am a champion for parental involvement, policy improvement, and a more positive educational environment. I am skilled at evaluating achievement gaps and developing strategies to ensure all students thrive.

Steve Gasper: I am a former elementary school teacher who grew up in an education-centered home, as my mother is a retired, 30-year first-grade teacher.  I am a graduate of the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in business management and organization. 

My wife and I are owners-operators of a vacation rental business and I’ve been a corporate sales and management leader for over 23 years.

I’ve also been intimately involved in GCPS over the past nearly four years, speaking at numerous BOE meetings, meeting with the previous as well as the current Superintendent, meeting and collaborating with senior district leadership, working with several current BOE members to build working relationships, and participating in district committees such as the Instructional Resources Review Committee (IRRC), the Discipline Task Force and the Superintendents Transition Planning Team.

I’ve also collaborated with several State Elected Officials to discuss ways we can create positive education policies for not only Gwinnett County but our entire state.

I’ve been the voice for teachers, parents and our community during this time.  I’ve had my “thumb to the pulse” of our community, gaining insight on topics that are most important in real-time. 

Shana V. White: I have been a K12 public and private school educator in Georgia for over 15 years.

I have been a varsity basketball coach at The Paideia School, Pace Academy, Peachtree Ridge HS,and Wesleyan School.

At Peachtree Ridge HS and Pace Academy, I was the varsity head coach for a total of 5 years combined. I have been both a classroom teacher and LSTC (local school technology coordinator) in Gwinnett County Public Schools for over 10 years, working at Creekland MS, Peachtree Ridge HS, Summerour MS, and Sweetwater MS.

I currently work with a national philanthropic organization (Kapor Foundation) that supports equitable computer science implementation and resources for K12 public school districts.

Additionally, as a part of my role, I currently directly support Muscogee County Schools (GA), Early County Schools (GA) and Oakland Unified School District (CA) with their computer science implementation as well as lead and facilitate professional development for teachers and school district leaders across the nation in K12 computer science equity, culturally responsible and sustaining computer science, ethical artificial intelligence and computational thinking.

Question #3: Lately, there has been a lot of press about school boards being pressed to eliminate or massage history lessons that may make some students and/or families uncomfortable. What is your reaction to this? And what would you do in similar situations?

Yanin Cortes: I believe that history is a vital component of a well-rounded, world-class education. It is necessary for us to learn from our mistakes and to understand how we got here to prepare our students for the world stage.

That said, the school board should be able to reasonably accommodate those who might find certain materials distressing. We must always take into account maturity and grade level when it comes to all learning materials.

Domonique Cooper: It’s concerning when efforts are made to remove or downplay uncomfortable aspects of history. History, by its very nature, isn’t always rosy. 

Sanitizing the past prevents us from learning from mistakes and hinders a complete understanding of the present.  Schools have a responsibility to teach history accurately and comprehensively, even the difficult parts.

What I would do:

  • Focus on historical context: Uncomfortable events should be presented within the context of the time period. Explain the prevailing social norms, biases, and limitations in understanding of the past. This allows for a more nuanced discussion.
  • Multiple perspectives: Show history from the viewpoints of different groups involved. This fosters empathy and critical thinking skills.
  • Open discussions: Create safe spaces for students to discuss sensitive topics and grapple with complex issues. Encourage respectful dialogue and guide students towards evidence-based conclusions.
  • Acknowledge the discomfort: It’s okay for students to feel uncomfortable with certain historical events. Use that discomfort as a springboard for deeper learning and critical reflection.
  • Transparency with parents: School boards should involve parents in discussions about curriculum but emphasize the importance of a complete historical picture. Offer resources and open communication channels for parents who may have concerns.

By teaching a comprehensive and inclusive version of history, we can empower future generations to be informed, engaged citizens who can work towards a more just and equitable society.

Steve Gasper:My feeling is that history is our history and should be told exactly how it was.  If we eliminate or massage history lessons, how can we learn and possibly improve upon our past to make us better people in society?  I would support teaching history lessons as they are written and not altered.

Shana V. White: In an increasingly polarized climate, a variety of emotions come to the surface for individuals or groups. Any time discussions or topics are polarizing in nature, our first response should be always to listen to understand.

Students and families are stakeholders in our public school system and have the right to be heard at school board meetings. As a teacher, I believed in teaching students the grade-appropriate truth as it relates to the history and current events of the United States as well as the world in a facts-based manner.

As educators our job is to demonstrate respect for all students as full human beings by providing them accurate information from a historic or current context and then give them the time and space to ponder, discuss and interrogate information.

As Dr. Martin Luther King said in an article in 1947, “education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from fiction.”

Question #4: In Gwinnett County, students come from diverse socio-economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. What strategies would you implement to ensure all students have equitable access to educational resources and opportunities?

Yanin Cortes: We need to ensure that we provide all students with a pathway to success and to do this, we must double down on what works.

This starts with early learning and school readiness. The Play 2 Learn initiative, which helps prepare infants through 5-year-olds for kindergarten and beyond, has been a great resource for families in our district.

The results of this program have been a massive success, and I believe that its expansion will benefit all students in our county.

Furthermore, Gwinnett County has received tremendous praise for its successful schools and programs, specifically in areas of STEM and other technical education areas. A safe learning environment goes hand in hand with making quality education possible.

Schools that create a safe learning environment have been more successful in our district. We must ensure the presence of at least two safety resource officers at all times in all of our schools. Further investment in these successful programs and initiatives is key to ensuring that we provide a pathway to success for all students.

Domonique Cooper: Here are some strategies I would use to ensure equitable access to educational resources and opportunities for all students in Gwinnett County’s diverse student body.

Addressing resource disparities:

  • Needs-based funding: Allocate resources to schools based on student needs, ensuring schools with higher populations of low-income students have the necessary funding for qualified teachers, updated materials, and smaller class sizes.
  • Technology equity: Provide all students with access to high-speed internet and up-to-date devices at school and home. Offer training and technical support to bridge the digital divide.
  • Multilingual resources: Ensure textbooks, assignments, and support materials are available in multiple languages to remove language barriers for non-native English speakers.

Supporting diverse learners:

  • Culturally responsive teaching: Train teachers in culturally responsive pedagogy to create inclusive classrooms that value diverse perspectives and learning styles.
  • Early childhood education: Invest in high-quality early childhood education programs, particularly in underserved communities, to ensure all students enter kindergarten with a strong foundation.
  • Targeted academic support: Provide targeted interventions and support programs for students who are struggling academically, including programs for gifted and talented students, ESL learners, and students with disabilities.

Expanding opportunities:

  • Advanced Placement (AP) for all: Expand access to AP courses and provide targeted support to help all students, especially those from traditionally underserved backgrounds, qualify and succeed in these rigorous programs.
  • Career and technical education (CTE): Ensure all schools offer a variety of CTE programs that expose students to different career paths and provide valuable job skills.

Fostering a culture of equity:

  • Data analysis and transparency: Regularly collect and analyze data to identify and address equity gaps in student achievement and access to resources.
  • Community partnerships: Collaborate with community organizations to provide wraparound services such as after-school programs, healthcare access, and mental health support.
  • Student and parent voice: Actively solicit feedback from students and parents from diverse backgrounds to understand their needs and concerns, and ensure they have a voice in shaping educational decisions.

By implementing these strategies, Gwinnett County can create a more equitable learning environment where all students, regardless of background, have the opportunity to succeed.

Steve Gasper: The diversity of Gwinnett County is what makes this a great county to work and live in, and that should be celebrated.  No one should be singled out, excluded or denied access to any educational resources and opportunities.  These are our future leaders and need all that we can offer them to be prepared as such.

Shana V. White: Improving educational equity, which meets the needs of diverse racial, cultural, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds of all, first requires all stakeholders to be on the same page.

We must have hard conversations with students, parents/caregivers, teachers and school/district administration to truly set collective strategies and goals, as educational equity work will look different at each school if it is done correctly.

Broadly, equity in schools should include providing opportunities, access and resources that help all students with diverse needs obtain success. One overall strategy to improve equity in schools involves first assessing the opportunity gaps that exist that are hindering success for all students.

One strategy I used when I was a teacher was making an intentional effort to understand the variety of intersecting identities of our students and how to make the learning environment one where all students and their identities belong.

Additionally, explicitly listening to the voices of students as well as their parents/caretakers and asking them what they need to be successful is an often-overlooked strategy for improving equitable student learning.

Finally, providing teachers with quality training and resources to build equitable learning environments in their classrooms.

Some of those tools include Universal Design for Learning and translanguaging to better meet the needs of students with disabilities and emerging English language learners.

Question #5: Gwinnett County, like almost every other school system, has struggled in the past decade or so to retain personnel — teachers, school bus drivers, etc. Do you have thoughts on how to attract and retain qualified candidates?

Yanin Cortes: We, as a school board, need to project a stable, forward-thinking and forward-planning culture within our school system.

We must utilize the existing support systems in our district to provide support for educators and faculty who are the lifeblood of our district.

As a former teacher, I understand that teachers and staff need support and transparency from administrators and district leaders to feel that they can effectively teach and do their jobs. Teachers need planning time, they need a heads-up when we, as a board, decide to implement a shift in policy.

I know that teachers do not want to bounce from school to school and district to district. Teachers desire a stable and safe teaching environment.

As a school board, we must be there not to micromanage them but to support them. On the school board, I will make it a priority to show our teachers and staff that we are there to support them, not just through words but through our actions as a school board.

Attracting and retaining talented staff is a multidimensional approach. There is a variation of strategies for both aspects.

Domonique Cooper: Attracting personnel, teachers, school bus drivers, etc., is a two-pronged approach.

  • Showcase Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) brand: Develop a strong reputation that highlights GCPS company culture, values and unique perks.
  • Offer competitive compensation and benefits: Salary and benefits are a major draw. Research what’s competitive in a similar sized district to attract top talent.
  • Retaining Qualified Candidates requires a variety of solutions to support stable staffing.
  • Prioritize company culture: Create a positive work environment that fosters collaboration, growth and work-life balance.
  • Invest in professional development: Offer training programs, mentorship opportunities, and support for employees to develop their skills and advance their careers.
  • Recognize and appreciate employees: Make them feel valued for their contributions. Public recognition, rewards programs and promotion from within go a long way.
  • Monitor employee engagement: Stay on top of employee sentiment. Conduct surveys and have open communication channels to address concerns and foster a sense of belonging.

By focusing on these aspects, Gwinnett County Public Schools will be able to attract and retain qualified employees and high-caliber candidates by keeping them happy and productive for the foreseeable future.

Steve Gasper: Our district personnel (teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, cafeteria workers bus drivers, etc.) are the lifeblood of our school system. 

Without them, we would cease to exist. 

It should be our main focus to make sure they feel happy and fulfilled in their jobs.  Over the past several years, GCPS has lost many great administrators, teachers, and those who support them. 

We need to provide a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment for them by creating effective staff retention programs (competitive pay, benefits, growth opportunities and support services). 

We must work to remove any roadblocks that prevent them from being successful.  This is one of the areas that is extremely important to me and will be a main focus for me when elected.

Shana V. White:Teaching as a profession nationally is undervalued and under respected. One of the things I would like to see improved as a former classroom teacher in Gwinnett is the quality of school site-based leadership.

School site leadership must clearly understand the school’s culture and climate is largely based on how teacher, staff and students are treated daily in the building daily. All school district leadership must better equip school site leaders with the training, resources and decision-making ability to make their schools a place where all teachers can thrive.

Making intentional efforts by school administrators to support teachers with duty-free planning, increased agency in their classroom, supporting all diverse learners’ needs in the building, making collective decisions on school policy and implementation, collaborative lesson/unit planning time, as well as uplifting teachers on a regular basis, are all items that would really go a long way in retaining teachers and making them feel valued.

As it relates to other school personnel, similar ideals of making them feel valued and an important part of the success of a school system is key. One way to value other educational personnel (bus drivers, office staff custodians, etc.) includes having leadership in place with clear and consistent expectations that are communicated.

Additionally, humanizing the work environment as much as possible and having personnel leadership open to feedback and ideas from staff go a long way to validating employees.

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The End of an Era: Dr. Mary Kay Murphy’s Final Term on The Gwinnett County Board of Education



Dr. Mary Kay Murphy's legacy on the Gwinnett County Board of Education; 28 years of fostering excellence in Georgia's largest school district.
Dr. Mary Kay Murphy at the meeting room of the Gwinnett County School Board // Photos by Tracey Rice

December 31, 2024, will mark the conclusion of the distinguished, seven-term service of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy on the Gwinnett County Board of Education — District III. Until then, Dr. Murphy remains actively engaged and dedicated to the important work of Georgia’s largest school district.

The pivotal role the community plays in identifying thoughtful candidates of ethical conduct could not be better highlighted than by Dr. Murphy’s 28 years on the board.

Reflecting on the impending end of her tenure and her involvement in setting the goals of the school system, which she has relished being a part of Dr. Murphy stated, “I’m sorry it’s coming to an end. There’s an attachment that comes with these experiences. I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed it and will miss it.”

An illustrious career

The many important roles Dr. Murphy will cherish include chairing the Gwinnett Board and the Georgia School Board Association, serving on the Seventh District Advisory Committee for local school board governance and the Governor’s Advisory Committee on school boards.

Her multi-faceted career provided valuable insights into public school education and state-level funding, benefiting both rural and urban Georgia. A rather extraordinary woman herself, Dr. Murphy humbly treasures memories of having worked with many remarkable individuals.

Dr. Murphy’s journey began amid fears surrounding the system’s decision to embrace Outcomes Based Education (OBE). OBE is a student-centered learning model which focuses on what students know without relying on rote memorization. As the community geared-up for the 1996 elections, worried citizens rallied to prevent what they felt would be a lowering of academic standards in favor of social promotion, where students might advance to the next grade without meeting proficiency levels.

It was a pressing issue casting a shadow of concern over the future of public education when Dr. Murphy began her first term in January of 1997. She commended the community’s united front, emphasizing their collective concern for the well-being and educational outcomes of all children, not just their own.

A perfect fit

This grassroots movement spurred the need for change and the election of new board members including Dr. Murphy, who shared the community’s vision for a robust and equitable education system. Recalling her entry into the role, Dr. Murphy revealed that initially her husband, Michael Murphy, was the intended candidate due to his extensive legal background.

However, he declined because he wanted to focus on his practice, recommending they consider “someone he knew at home” who’d be perfect. Dr. Murphy stepped into the role, supported by her husband who served as her campaign manager throughout her seven terms. She joked that they had only themselves to blame for nearly three decades of many cold or late dinners.

Dr. Murphy emphasized the importance of honest leadership, with a deep-seated commitment to prioritizing public education. During her initial victory she secured 63% of the vote, underscoring the community’s trust in her capabilities.

Throughout her tenure, community feedback played a significant role in shaping her decision to seek reelection. Recognizing the value of introducing a fresh perspective to the board is what guided her choice not to seek an eighth term.

Professional highlights

Dr. Murphy values the magnitude of each board member’s role and broader impact. Every vote affects over a million people — residents, students and neighbors — as it applies to the entire county’s population, not just to their respective districts. The responsibility of shaping educational policies and initiatives is one she has always taken very seriously.

According to Dr. Murphy, Gwinnett County found a beacon of hope in Mr. J. Alvin Wilbanks, when the former president of Gwinnett Technical College assumed the role of superintendent. Under 25 years of his leadership, the school system witnessed significant innovations aimed at addressing students’ academic, social, physical and emotional needs.

One of the most notable achievements during Mr. Wilbanks’ tenure was the recognition of Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) by the Broad Foundation as the Best Urban Public School System in the nation in 2010 and 2014. This acknowledgment, accompanied by $1,500,000 in scholarship awards, highlighted the strides made in closing the achievement gap and ensuring educational excellence for all learners.

Dr. Mary Kay Murphy’s many accolades

Academic knowledge and skills

To combat fears of social promotion stemming from OBE, GCPS pioneered the specialized Academic Knowledge and Skills (AKS) curriculum. This approach led to the school system developing its own standards of excellence which many deem to be higher than those set forth by the State of Georgia.

GCPS teachers are required to teach their academic programs incorporating the AKS component of their discipline. Dr. Murphy is proud of the access teachers have to professional development, allowing them to make the AKS curriculum their own.

International Baccalaureate

Dr. Murphy highlighted various initiatives aimed at meeting diverse student needs. Some of the work of which she is most proud includes being present at the onset of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs offered at Norcross and Shiloh High Schools, Pinckneyville and Summerour Middle Schools, and Peachtree Elementary School.

The IB programs, with globally recognized standards, are designed to be academically rigorous while promoting intercultural understanding, inspiring young minds to work towards a better world. Never has a cross-cultural approach to creating a just and peaceful world been more important than now.

“It took the vote of five and the leadership of the superintendent to bring that to fruition. It also took insight from the community that thought this was a good use of taxpayers’ money,” Dr. Murphy explained.

Dual-Language Immersion

The Dual-Language Immersion (DLI) programs coincide with research — the time to learn a second language is during the formative years of childhood. GCPS’ 50/50 Model means at least 50% of the day is spent learning in the target language.

Trip Elementary School (ES) offers French. Baldwin ES offers Spanish. Students study Korean at Parsons ES. The New Life Academy of Excellence Charter School provides instruction in Mandarin Chinese. Every year it is a leader in student performance.

DLI has been a great investment, in Dr. Murphy’s view. “It’s an amazing thing to see little folks taking on the responsibility and being alert to the benefits of learning a second language,” she shared.

Courtesy of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy

Philanthropy is key in District III

Dr. Murphy lauded the community’s philanthropic efforts, citing the Norcross High School Foundation for Excellence as an exemplary model of parent-led initiatives. Through events like annual galas, the foundation has raised funds to support teacher grants, after-school programs and infrastructure improvements, enriching the educational experience of scholars for over 20 years.

As Dr. Murphy reminisced about her own experience as a board member, she underscored the profound impact of community engagement and collaboration in shaping the trajectory of public education in Gwinnett County. Through shared vision, advocacy and tireless dedication, stakeholders have transformed challenges into opportunities, ensuring that every child receives a quality education and the support needed to thrive in an ever-changing world.

Many parents participate in the good works of local schools by donating their time and talents even after their kids have gone to college. “It’s been an amazing thing to see their spirit of philanthropy continue,” Dr. Murphy remarked.

“I think District III is in extremely good shape. We’ve got tremendous principals, community members who truly care about these schools and a variety of schools to meet student needs,” she observed.


According to Dr. Murphy, the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) has greatly enhanced school system facilities. The community’s unwavering support for SPLOST referendums has enabled rapid growth and expansion through the construction of 76 new schools since 1997. Norcross High School, funded in part by SPLOST revenues, stands as a testament to the community’s commitment to investing in public education infrastructure.

Under the leadership of the Superintendent, the board works to balance the yearly budget, thereby steering the course of property taxes and allocations. Dr. Murphy revealed this year’s budget to be approximately $2.8 billion dollars and was happy to announce the 19.2 school millage rate would remain the same.

“Even though some of our housing properties have increased in value, our millage rate will not increase. We’ve been able to keep it steady for almost seven years,” Dr. Murphy shared.

The Great Recession

During the economic downfall of 2008, Governor Nathan Deal’s Austerity Cuts included $100,000,000 out of the state budget for public education. Dr. Murphy is proud that GCPS, through the leadership of the superintendent and his staff, made certain that teachers were able to keep 190-day contracts.

“This did not happen in many school systems, where the funding of the property tax would not allow for it. We saw teachers’ salaries cut to 140 days,” Dr. Murphy said.

Extra large

It’s difficult to fathom the logistics of the largest school district in Georgia — the 11th largest in the U.S. GCPS includes 144 schools. When Dr. Murphy first started there were nine schools in District III. Today, her district comprises 30 schools.

Calling attention to the remarkable high schools, some of the largest in the country including Norcross, Duluth, Peachtree Ridge, North Gwinnett and Paul Duke STEM, Dr. Murphy celebrates the options available to students.

Courtesy of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy

“The Norcross cluster was the first to provide two high schools for students so that they and their parents could have an opportunity for school choice. That took place approximately five years ago, when Paul Duke opened,” Dr. Murphy beamed.

Paul Duke

Paul Duke STEM High School on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard was named after the Georgia Tech graduate who founded Peachtree Corners. Dr. Murphy recalled the day of dedication with an auditorium bursting at the seams with Duke’s Georgia Tech colleagues and people who built Peachtree Corners.

Opening two high schools was the solution as Norcross could no longer increase its enrollment to accommodate the rampant growth in District III. Norcross High School maintained its important niche with the IB program from kindergarten through senior year.

Paul Duke became a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) school — in keeping with the purpose behind the founding of Peachtree Corners — to provide technology jobs that would keep Georgia Tech graduates and engineers from moving out of state.

The GIVE Center West

Just down the street from Paul Duke is an alternative school, The GIVE Center West or Gwinnett Intervention Education serving grades 6 through 12. It aims to prepare students for graduation and transition back to their home school if they wish, with improved academic and behavioral skills.

Academics and the arts

Since 2014, The North Metro Academy of Performing Arts has brought a new dimension for elementary school families craving something beyond the standard curriculum by integrating it with the performing arts. Instruction at North Metro fosters collaboration, imagination and confidence.

They can’t all be golden

One regret Dr. Murphy expressed was the board’s unfortunate 2023 decision to change the GCPS discipline policy. She readily admits that she initially went along with it believing teachers and principals would receive the professional development needed to make Restorative Justice work with students.

Restorative Justice is defined by Dr. Murphy as a commitment to the relaxation of the initiatives that would punish a student for behavior. “The relaxation was felt from the top of the organization to the bottom. We had unbelievable student unrest, students fighting one another, bringing weapons to school, losing their mooring, basically,” Dr. Murphy recounted.

The aim of Restorative Justice is to have students understand their inappropriate behavior and be self-motivated to change it. A restructuring of student relationships with teachers and counselors is a component of the lighter discipline model.

As a former teacher, I could not refrain from wondering aloud, “How did this happen?” I learned it was the election promise of some board members.

“Elections have consequences,” Dr. Murphy warned. Not far into the process, Dr. Murphy rescinded her vote to support the change in discipline and insisted on a mid-course correction.

Courtesy of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy

New leadership

Crediting Superintendent Dr. Calvin Watts for finding a pathway, Dr. Murphy believes things are moving in the right direction now. “It was a hard lesson and I’m confident our board has learned from it,” she stated.

After Mr. Wilbanks was Superintendent for 25 years, Dr. Watts has risen to meet the challenge of managing both changes and stability.

Yet she remains positive and hopeful about what the coming months will bring.

“There’s an awareness and we have every benefit of some awfully good minds. If there’s one thing we have, it’s a lot of brain power throughout 183,000 students and 25,000 teachers and principals,” Dr. Murphy remarked.


A generous allotment of federal money, approximately $1,000,000,000, was contributed to the school system by the federal government with the stipulation that it must be spent by September 2024. The money has been instrumental in easing students back into school after extended absences due to COVID.

“It has helped us employ counselors in larger numbers than we’ve had before, social workers, people who can help us face the challenges from COVID. With budget season ahead, the board is now challenged with providing those services without federal funding,” Dr. Murphy said.

Continuous improvement

While school board members are evaluated at the ballot box, as Dr. Murphy pointed out, principals and teachers are evaluated by parents and their students. Dr. Murphy feels the online evaluations provide meaningful feedback.

Weekend warrior

Aside from her day job, Dr. Murphy spent three years traveling in the name of institutional advancement. Fulfilling her role as adjunct professor was important to her. Traveling to Nashville on weekends, Dr. Murphy taught English at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. For three additional years she did the same at LaGrange College near Columbus, Ga.

At Vanderbilt Dr. Murphy had about 15 students from all over the country keeping the same weekend schedule. Directing the programs at both colleges, she was glad to follow her students over the course of their three-year programs.

After her final term

After wrapping-up her school board endeavors on December 31, 2024, you can find Dr. Murphy enriching the community from the board of The Georgia Humanities Council.

Championing the humanities, which have added value to the lives of so many besides her own family, Dr. Murphy shared, “The humanities have a historic role to play in creating critical thinkers engaged in community life. I’m looking forward to being a part of this organization and meeting people from all over the state. I’m thinking how appreciative I am of the humanities teachers and professors in GCPS and in the state.”

With her husband, Dr. Murphy looks forward to creating memories and spending quality time with their 11-year-old twin grandchildren — one boy and one girl. They’ll be cheering for them on the baseball field and basketball court.

In the same breath that she expressed the desire not to get too regimented, Dr. Murphy confided, “There’s nothing like a good project to work on.”

Courtesy of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy

A lasting impact

Despite her decision to step down, Dr. Murphy remains steadfast in her dedication to education, acknowledging that the work is far from finished. Looking back on her impactful career, she expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve her community through the advancement of public education.

Although she’s been recognized in many ways for her steadfast service, two awards hold special meaning for her: the Paul Duke Lifetime Achievement in Education award and the Boy Scout award.

Dr. Murphy concluded, “I’ll always have a great place in my heart for the work on the Gwinnett County Board of Education. It’s given me so much joy and a sense of continuity. There’s always something to learn and it’s important to remember to bring others along.” Preparing to pass the baton to a new generation of leaders, Dr. Murphy’s legacy of integrity, dedication and passion for education will undoubtedly leave a lasting imprint on the Gwinnett County School System.

Find more Peachtree corners education stories here.

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