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NASA Spotlight: Brandon Rodriguez, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Education Specialist Brandon Rodriguez is an education specialist…

NASA Spotlight: Brandon Rodriguez, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Education Specialist Brandon Rodriguez is an education specialist…

NASA Spotlight: Brandon Rodriguez, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Education Specialist 

Brandon Rodriguez is an education specialist at our Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California where he provides resources and training to K-12 schools across the Southwest. Working with a team at JPL, he develops content for classroom teachers, visits schools and speaks with students and trains future teachers to bring NASA into their classroom. When he’s not in the classroom, Brandon’s job takes him on research expeditions all around the world, studying our planet’s extreme environments.  

Fun fact: Brandon wakes up every morning to teach an 8 a.m. physics class at a charter school before heading to JPL and clocking in at his full time job. When asked why? He shared, “The truth is that I really feel so much better about my role knowing that we’re not ‘telling’ teachers what to do from our ivory tower. Instead, I can “share” with teachers what I know works not just in theory, but because I’m still there in the classroom doing it myself.” – Brandon Rodriguez

Brandon took time from exciting the next generation of explorers to answer some questions about his life and his career: 

What inspired you to work in the educational department at NASA?

I was over the moon when I got a call from NASA Education. I began my career as a research scientist, doing alternative energy work as a chemist. After seven years in the field, I began to feel as if I had a moral responsibility to bring access to science to a the next generation. To do so, I quit my job in science and became a high school science teacher. When NASA called, they asked me if I wanted a way to be both a scientist and an educator- how could I resist?

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You were born in Venezuela and came to the U.S. when you were 12 years old. Can you tell us the story of why and how you came to America?

I haven’t been back to Venezuela since I was very young, which has been very difficult for me. Being an immigrant in the USA sometimes feels like you’re an outsider of both sides: I’m not truly Latin, nor am I an American. When I was young, I struggled with this in ways I couldn’t articulate, which manifested in a lot of anger and got me in quite a bit of trouble. Coming to California and working in schools that are not only primarily Latinx students, but also first generation Latinx has really helped me process that feeling, because it’s something I can share with those kids. What was once an alienating force has become a very effective tool for my teaching practice.

Does your job take you on any adventures outside of the classroom and if so, what have been your favorite endeavors?

I’m so fortunate that my role takes me all over the world and into environments that allow to me to continue to develop while still sharing my strengths with the education community. I visit schools all over California and the Southwest of the USA to bring professional development to teachers passionate about science. But this year, I was also able to join the Ocean Exploration Trust aboard the EV Nautilus as we explored the Pacific Remote Island National Marine Monument. We were at sea for 23 days, sailing from American Samoa to Hawaii, using submersible remotely operated vehicles to explore the ocean floor. 

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Image Credit: Nautilus Live 

We collected coral and rock samples from places no one has ever explored before, and observed some amazing species of marine creatures along the way.

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Image Credit: Nautilus Live 

What keeps you motivated to go to work every day?

There’s no greater motivation than seeing the product of your hard work, and I get that everyday through students. I get to bring them NASA research that is “hot off the press” in ways that their textbooks never can. They see pictures not online or on worksheets, but from earlier that day as I walked through JPL. It is clearly that much more real and tangible to them when they can access it through their teacher and their community.

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Do you have any tips for people struggling with their science and math classes? 

As someone who struggled- especially in college- I want people to know that what they struggle with isn’t science, it’s science classes. The world of research doesn’t have exams; it doesn’t have blanks to be filled in or facts to be memorized. Science is exploring the unknown. Yes, of course we need the tools to properly explore, and that usually means building a strong academic foundation. But it helped me to differentiate the end goal from the process: I was bad at science tests, but I wanted to someday be very good at science. I could persevere through the former if it got me to the latter.

If you could safely visit any planet, star, or solar system, where would you visit and what would you want to learn?

Europa, without a doubt. Imagine if we found even simple life once more in our solar system- and outside of the habitable zone, no less. What would this mean for finding life outside of our solar system as a result? We would surely need to conclude that our sky is filled with alien worlds looking back at us.

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Is there a moment or project that you feel defined (or significantly impacted) your career up to today?

While I never worked closely with the mission, Insight was a really important project for me. It’s the first time while at JPL I was able to see the construction, launch and landing of a mission.

If you could name a spaceship, what would you name it?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching and reading science fiction, and I continue to be amazed at how fiction informs reality. How long ago was it that in Star Trek, the crew would be handing around these futuristic computer tablets that decades later would become common iPads?  In their honor, I would be delighted if we named a ship Enterprise.

Thanks so much Brandon! 

Additional Image Credit: MLParker Media

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