Houston, We Have an Ellis Girl

In October 2019, a new first happened. Fifty years after the all-male Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon, two female astronauts, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, performed NASA’s first-ever spacewalk conducted entirely by women. It was the 221st spacewalk completed in support of the space station, but the only all-female one. While it was a huge milestone for NASA—it’s fair to say Ellis girls in the second grade can’t quite comprehend why it took so long.
To them, women have always played a critical role in space exploration. They learned about NASA legends Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, and Katherine Johnson when they were researching influential women throughout history, and a handful even chose to portray them in their class play. And now, they are envisioning themselves as the next generation of NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers—even imagining conducting their own future spacewalks—during an immersive unit on outer space. 

Originally started by now-retired teacher Terri Wilson (who had the idea after attending a space camp for teachers), the interdisciplinary unit challenges girls to exercise their critical thinking and collaboration skills over the course of a month while learning about galaxies far, far away. The section culminates on the aptly named Space Day, where students complete hands-on missions and activities that mimic life on the International Space Station with their families and teachers. 

To prepare for Space Day, students research celestial bodies, learn about the interactions between the earth, moon, and sun, and delve into the history of aeronautics and the space station in STEM class. During morning team meetings, grade 2 teachers Rachael Hart and Katie Jordanoff build girls’ knowledge of space through group discussions and read-alouds of children’s books like Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and Margaret on the Moon by Dean Robbins. Together, they learn about space and about one of the most critical aspects of space exploration: teamwork. Because no mission could be accomplished without it, Ms. Hart and Ms. Jordanoff give their class ample time and space to practice problem-solving, collaborating, and working together as a team.

“Every girl is assigned to a crew and participates in team-building activities with them before Space Day,” shared Ms. Hart. “They do a three-legged race, complete a hula hoop challenge, and design a patch as a team, so it’s a lot of give and take between the girls. It takes a lot of communication and compromise to problem-solve as a crew, but we remind them they have to work as one team, just like astronauts do.” 

When Space Day arrives, the second grade classrooms and STEM room are transformed into an intergalactic universe. Students simulate suiting up for a space walk, moving through an airlock, and building modules for the International Space Station. They communicate with Mission Control, eat astronaut food and “sleep” in a microgravity environment, and experience the challenges of making repairs in space. In the midst of all the learning that happens, they’re encouraged to wonder, imagine, and have fun.  

“Whether it’s the changing seasons or why it gets dark at night, studying space is a way for our students to understand things that happen around them every day,” said Lower School Science Teacher Kim Mechling. “The girls learn so much and are really empowered by that knowledge. By the end of it, they’re the ones teaching us, and their families, about all things space.”