Michele Mailhot gives students an astronaut’s view of Earth to bring math to life in the classroom.

By Christine Van Dusen
January 2014

Michele Mailhot (far left) stands with the NASA team
Michele Mailhot (far left) stands with the NASA team.

As a little girl growing up in Connecticut and Maine, Michele Mailhot ’09 and her six siblings loved to lay in the grass and stare up at the stars, hoping to catch one streaking across the sky. It was the 1960s, and Mailhot wanted to know what astronauts saw when they peered back down at Earth.

Today, she has helped answer that question for herself and for countless children. She worked with a team of educators and scientists to develop a curriculum that gives students a view of the world from outer space—quite literally. The NASA-sponsored program she co-created, called “ARES: Expedition Earth and Beyond,” uses astronaut photography from shuttle missions and the International Space Station, allowing students to study geological features on Earth in ways that mirror the investigations conducted by NASA scientists.

Mailhot isn’t an astronaut; she is a mathematics specialist for the Maine Department of Education and the secretary of the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics. But her involvement in the “Expedition Earth” program makes sense, she says, because through it math and science come alive—an important part of educating young minds.

With initial funding from a three-year grant, Mailhot, three teachers, NASA scientists, and NASA’s science education specialist Paige Graff from the Johnson Space Center created the curriculum in which students looked at astronauts’ photos and collected data on Earth’s volcanoes, impact craters, glaciers, sand dunes, rivers, and deltas. Then, using several years of photos of the same sites, students used math to analyze how those features changed over time.

“Sometimes students don’t come in at grade level; I felt I lacked the knowledge to support those struggling students,” Mailhot explains, which is why she pursued her M.S. in Education with a specialization in Mathematics (Grades 6–8). “My courses at Walden gave me tools to help students look at mathematics differently,” she says. “They often ask, ‘When will I ever use math and why do I have to learn this?’ Expedition Earth answers those questions.”

Students used math to calculate environmental changes such as how far a glacier has grown or retreated or whether a land mass has changed over time. From that data, they drew conclusions and presented their findings not only to their teachers but also directly to NASA scientists.

Teachers who were involved in the project are still doing workshops, creating new lessons, training educators, and looking for funding to expand and enhance the Expedition Earth program. Plus, the archived curriculum is free and easily found online. “We hope more teachers will use this,” Mailhot says. “This is bringing math to life.”

Find the curriculum here.