Rebecca Vieyra

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The Women@NASA Spotlight is on…

Rebecca Vieyra, Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow, Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters

We hope you enjoy the interview below with Rebecca, that you learn something you did not know, and that you take away a nugget of inspiration from this remarkable role model. To learn more about the Spotlight recognition, visit here.

What inspired you to work at NASA?

I came to NASA Aeronautics through by being selected as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. I felt it was important for me, as a high school physics teacher, to see beyond my classroom walls. From the earliest I can remember, I wanted to be the first Catholic nun on the moon. My father was the director of the Illinois State University Planetarium for over 20 years, so I grew up in an environment surrounded by the awe of the universe. Some of my earliest memories go back to very late evenings with the Twin City Amateur Astronomers of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, eating chocolate bars to conserve energy in the frigid winter nights. At age 11, I was one of the youngest individuals to earn the standard Messier certificate for observation of 70 objects in the night sky using a manual telescope. As a teenager, I completed my Girl Scout Gold Award through service to the Central Illinois Challenger Learning Center. I came to my placement at NASA Aeronautics only after seven years of teaching physics in high school. Before teaching, I had actually investigated careers associated with marine biology, medicine, and international relations – because I love to explore the world. Every time I travel, I am in awe of our power to. For me, awe is somewhere between fear and amazement. I experience it when I look at the universe, and I experience it when I fly. It is that awe that inspired me to share in the NASA mission.

Do you remember what it was like on your first day of work at NASA?

On my first day, I was asked to preview Living in the Age of Airplanes before its release by Terwilliger Films and National Geographic Studios, and to create an educator guide for the movie. It was actually within those first three days that I created the guide that eventually was published seven months later to help support a collaboration between NASA and the producer and distributor of the film. Mutually, we want to advance a love for aviation and everything it brings us, keeping in mind the many contributions made by NASA and its precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. I brought my own goals too – one of my goals was to help fellow physics teachers see the wealth of resources offered by NASA. This desire to directly impact teachers and students in physics classrooms has been the driving force behind many of my activities. Someone outside of NASA might think that it is intimidating to work here, with NASA’s legacy and promise of advancing humankind on its greatest adventures on Earth and beyond. However, I quickly came to see that NASA’s individuals are very intelligent yet, in other ways, quite ordinary people doing extraordinary things together.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned in your life?

Perhaps the best lesson I have learned is to hold my expectations high. In the words of L. M. Montgomery’s character, Anne Shirley, “…it’s not what the world holds for you, it’s what you bring to it.” Encapsulated in this saying is the belief that we each have a deep self-worth and a capability to contribute richly to our world. It is a belief that we are in control of what we choose to do with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have a generative power to make something beautiful from our own resources without any need to change the essence of who we are.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I find it difficult to pinpoint a single accomplishment, because success is often a product of continual growth and many small accomplishments that end up being turning-points. On a day-to-day level, my greatest accomplishment is to see a student who claims to hate or be bored with science suddenly find fascination with it, or to have a student who has little confidence find the strength to adamantly defend his or her viewpoint. Holistically, my greatest recent accomplishments include the writing of a 40-chapter, three-volume book, Teaching High School Physics with my father, Carl Wenning, and the development of Vieyra Software mobile sensor apps for physics education with my husband, Chrystian Vieyra. I hope that both of these accomplishments will result in positive impacts in physics education across the nation and the world.

What was the most difficult moment of your career? What did you learn?

Undoubtedly, the most difficult moment of my career was my first year of teaching (the whole year!) I learned that teaching is a deeply personal activity, and that nearly every personal flaw of mine is drawn out of me and made visible at one point or another. I recall one particular low point in my first year when the entire classroom was out of control and I was totally overwhelmed. I remember closing my eyes for a moment to regain myself when I was approached by a student who asked me how she could help. It was in a very brief heart-to-heart that I realized that I couldn’t always give my all, and that some times I needed reciprocation by asking students and colleagues to help me. Overall, as a teacher, I would make hundreds (if not thousands) of decisions each day. My priorities, values, and ethics are revealed whenever I make decisions. When I make less than ideal decisions, students make for a challenging audience when that happens! In my first year of teaching, I learned to be humble, to accept my weaknesses with the firm intent to improve, to ask for forgiveness, and to ask for help when I needed it.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life, and what lessons did they teach you?

There are too many people to name, as I believe that each of my teachers and mentors has contributed significantly to who I am. My parents raised me to be confident and independent, and to understand that happiness is a choice, love is a commitment, and that my priorities should fall in the order of faith, family, and education. My husband, who is a first generation immigrant following his college education in the US, has taught me to take risks, to pay attention to the present, and not lose sight of the “cutting edge” of whatever I’m doing, be it in education, technology, or world events. My daughter, who is only four years old, teaches me to take time to play and to wonder at the world with a child’s eyes.

How has your career been different than what you’d imagined?

Schools typically reward teachers who are loyal to a district for the majority of their professional lives, and that had been my plan until a little over a year ago. While we absolutely need the best teachers in the classroom over the long-term, I was surprised to find myself called to a different avenue in science education, both by the fellowship and by many of my family, friends, and colleagues. My sponsor regularly encouraged me in my first few months to “think bigger.” Many of my sights as a teacher used to deal with what I could effectively manage – my own classroom. Here, I am being encouraged to not only think regionally, but to think nationally or even globally. As part of my fellowship, I work with the International Forum for Aviation Research and help manage the Young Researcher Network. As a result, it’s not uncommon for me to exchange phone calls across multiple international lines in a single day – something hardly impressive at a federal agency, but it stands in contrast to my own very local work as a teacher. With my educational work, I’ve had every opportunity to collaborate across the nation with teams from NASA regional centers, children’s authors, and fellow leaders in physics education. This big thinking has expanded my own sights away from my NASA work, including my publication of Teaching High School Physics, which has a bit of a following in various pockets around the world, including Indonesia and Italy. With Vieyra Software, my work is being used in high school and university classrooms around the globe, especially in Europe and South America. In a very short span of time, my “classroom” has grown, and no place seems off-limits any more.

Did you have to overcome any gender barriers in your career?

While I have not encountered any overt bias, there are challenges associated with being a female in physics. While an undergraduate, I was one of only two females in my entering class, and it is easy even for a strong-willed female to feel a bit left out at times. I also was one of the very few individuals who hadn’t had any computer science experience before college, so I immediately felt that I was at a disadvantage, regardless of my abilities overall. Taking computer science or engineering in high school would have helped, but it was never a consideration, either because it just wasn’t something that was expected or encouraged, or perhaps because I just hadn’t had any exposure to it. Although there is a much better representation of females in physics education than in other physics careers, it is not uncommon for me to still be one of only a few female physics educators at professional events. While at my most recent school, Cary-Grove High School, I was in a department where genders were equally represented across all science education fields, and I believe that the diversity greatly enhanced the relationships with all of my colleagues, male and female, and with my students themselves, who were able to see role models of all types.

What does your future hold?

Although I still don’t know where I will be after my fellowship, my ultimate professional goal is to continue to encourage and provide physics education for all. As in my own classroom, I strive to help the general population achieve scientific literacy, and to have confidence and competence in their scientific abilities and civic activities.

What one piece of advice would you like to pass on to the next generation?

Collaboration is really important to being effective at whatever it is that you do. While people often think about collaboration as being interpersonal (between or among multiple persons), I also try to think about it in an intrapersonal way (within myself). Whenever I set myself on a mission, I try to think about how my involvement in the mission can support or be supported by my other goals and activities in life. Historically, there has been a great divide between one’s personal and professional life, and most business and social systems have respected that division. However, I have found that it is incredibly important to merge these different aspects of my life together so that they can support one another. It’s imperative to find a job that supports you personally and professionally, both by giving you flexibility when you need it, and challenge when you want it. Whenever possible, I try to engage my family in my work activities, and I try to bring my work into the activities my family is doing. For me, I think it’s really important to keep my husband and daughter engaged in my work life. There are few things more enjoyable than having loved ones who can communicate with me on an intellectual level about my life work.


Spotlight Pictures

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra

photo of Rebecca Vieyra