Several years back, Christine Morales led a program to train other teachers in her Alpine school district on how to use Sally Ride Science books and lesson plans in the classroom. She also took part in a Sally Ride Science Academy for teachers from across the country.

“I loved the experience of being at the conference and interacting with other educators,” she said. “And the students loved reading the books. It gave them the idea that science wasn’t just people in lab coats.”

So Morales jumped at the chance to reconnect with Sally Ride Science this summer as program supervisor for the Junior Academy, four weeks of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) workshops for girls and boys in grades 4-12.

“I was so excited to be a part of Sally Ride Science again,” she said. “Helping to make this program run and make it successful has been a great honor.”

Morales has spent 28 years as an educator, including 22 years as a classroom teacher and a stint as an assistant principal. She applied her experience to the complex challenge of making sure things ran smoothly as more than 500 students attended dozens of different workshops at UC San Diego Extension’s University City Center from June 24 to July 19. Topics ranged from Advanced Robotics and Wind Power to Gemology and the Science of Harry Potter.

Sally Ride Science, cofounded by America’s first women in space in 2001 to promote diversity in science education, became part of UC San Diego in 2015 and launched the Junior Academy in 2016. Past Junior Academies were held at Mission Bay High School.

With the move to University City Center this summer, Morales implemented new safety procedures, making sure instructors and staff had access to emergency kits and were familiar with evacuation routes. She established a system so students would always be supervised while moving about the building.

“We worked together to provide safety and just a great experience to students and parents and instructors – that’s important to me,” she said.

Students in the “Amazing Asteroids” workshop show Christine Morales their designs for a bunker to protect people from an asteroid impact.

She also put a premium on communication, equipping staff members with walkie talkies in addition to the Skype channel used in previous years. “Open communication and helping one another have really helped make the program a success,” she noted.

Megan Lancaster, manager for education and community outreach at UC San Diego Extension, said Morales’ efforts really paid off. “Chris’ teaching and administrative experience ensured Sally Ride Science students received top-notch instruction in a safe and supportive environment,” Lancaster said. “Not only did instructors notice a difference with Chris here this year, but so did parents and students. We are extremely lucky to have her and look forward to her continuing in years to come!”

Joy of learning

Morales spent most of her time on administrative duties: “I was working to make things run smoothly for the instructors so they could do an excellent job.” But, she added, “I still get to go in and see the students and watch what they’re doing. It’s kind of a nice break.”

In previous years, the Junior Academy was only for middle and high school students, but this year, there also were workshops for grades 4 and 5. Morales said the addition was a smashing success. Organizers hope to offer even more elementary-level workshops next summer, she added.

“The younger students are so vocal and excited – they have that enthusiasm, that pure joy. That’s why many of us go into teaching, because of how open they are with their emotions and their love of learning.”

Morales got insight into how things were going from her own 9-year-old twins, who attended several workshops. “My own children were here,” she said. “Every day I saw the projects they were working on and I saw their excitement.”

She said a key strength of the Junior Academy is the different kinds of expertise that instructors bring to their workshops. The instructors include undergraduate and graduate students from UC San Diego as well as science educators from around the region.

“Everybody brings to the classroom their own personal experiences and their passions in life,” she said, citing the example of Lorrie Friet, who shares her love of marine biology in the “Slimy Sea Creatures” workshop. “That passion just shows in the enthusiasm of her students,” Morales said. “They got to open an oyster and it had 22 pearls inside!”

That kind of inspiration isn’t confined to younger students. Morales pointed to the “Walking Beast” workshop, where high schoolers built a contraption that walks without a motor or batteries. “I think it’s amazing, the creativity that allowed those students to engineer and build the walking beast, from concept to end design, in two weeks. And I hope that encourages them to continue and try things in the future.”

Morales’ experience as an educator helped her meet the challenges of running the Junior Academy, but she was also able to draw on her personal background as she interacted with the diverse group of students. She’s a registered member of the Cherokee Nation who remembers her grandfather speaking Cherokee to her when she was young. Morales and her children take part in cultural and outreach activities with a local Cherokee group.

Teaching in Alpine, Morales often has Kumeyaay Indian children in her classes. Her heritage “helps to foster a connection” with the students, she says. “They’ll look at me and say, ‘OK, she’s one of us.’”