Laura Slacum hated math in school, an unlikely start for a future math teacher.

Then one day working for a social services agency she decided to go back to school and change that. She earned a teaching certificate and now instructs math at Orangefield High School.

She’s also one of the educators who recently returned from this year’s Liftoff 2009 Celestial Travelers, a hands-on forum sponsored by NASA.

“I like to tell my kids that if I can get through it, they can get through it,” she says. “If you can reach them with just one ‘spark,’ the kids know you care.”

Married to Clark Slacum, engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, Laura has three grown kids who are all Orangefield graduates. She received her high school diploma in her native McAllen, and business degrees from Pam American University and the University of Texas. 

She will begin her third year of teaching at OHS when school begins Aug. 24. And on Aug. 27, she says, she will employ a technique demonstrated at the NASA forum.

“We will look at observations, such as describing a candy bar without any words,” she says. “In math you have prisms and pyramids and you have to classify what they are and why they are this way, and some kids aren’t good at that. It’s a very interesting exercise using science to cross into math. And I’ll be thinking, ‘There may be a teacher in Montana right now doing the same thing, but with a little bit different twist to it.”

She speaks of course about one of her colleagues in the Liftoff forum, which lasted one week. Highlights of this year’s program included visits with astronauts Dominic Gorie, a veteran of four space shuttle flights; and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, a mission specialist who served on shuttle flights in 2006 and ‘08. She has also made five space walks. 

Teachers conducted a simulated mission to the moon and Mars in the Challenger Center. Other features included talks with NASA engineers and demonstrations of classroom hands-on activities.

“I absolutely loved it,” Slacum says. “Most of it was dealing with astronomy, but it pulled in a lot of math which made it more cross-curricular. They told us, ‘You may not realize it but one of your students might be the first to land on Mars.’

“While I enjoyed the Challenger mission simulation in the George Observatory, the highlight for me was going behind the scenes, and at one point I got to sit in the pilot seat of the simulator where they train to fly the shuttle.”

Slacum applied for the institute in November, 2008, and received her invitation in April. Organizer’s of this summer’s program helped celebrate its 20th year.

The Liftoff Summer Institute is a collaborative effort of Texas Space Grant Consortium members and affiliates, NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute. Educators may apply for next summer’s program at