Kaci Heins is the kind of teacher that inspires students to think outside the box.
Heins’ sixth-graders at Northland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff don’t just conduct typical science experiments. They launch weather balloons into Earth’s atmosphere, build underwater robots, interact with NASA astronauts through ham radio and send plant seeds into space and compare the results with seeds here on Earth.
Those projects, along with many other experiments, have become hallmarks of Heins’ class, and the reason she has endeared herself to her students and fellow teachers while winning dozens of awards.
Heins’ achievements include the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics Educator Achievement Award, Flagstaff STEM City Teacher of the Year in 2014 and regional, state and national Air Force Association Teacher of the Year awards last year.
“The biggest thing is the drive that she puts into bringing real science to her kids and other teachers, so they can bring science to their kids,” said Northland Prep Principal Toni Keberlein.
Heins has been teaching for 10 years, including four years at Northland Prep as the sixth-grade science teacher. However, Heins’ love for science stretches back to fourth grade when she received her first science kit.
“I loved learning about the world around me,” she said. “As a teacher, I keep learning and growing, and I do a ton of professional development.”
Some may equate professional development with attending some classes or conferences during summer break, but Heins’ training extends beyond the typical instruction teachers receive to sharpen their skills .
Heins usually travels each summer, meeting with scientists from NASA, as well as other science teachers, while visiting the space agency’s various centers and facilities around the country.
This summer, she will head to the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Boston to hear a keynote speech from engineer, entrepreneur and Tesla architect Elon Musk.
In addition, Heins’ has flown on a “Zero G” flight with NASA, where she experienced how it feels to move in a weightless environment and the Honeywell Advanced Space Academy for teachers.
This training has led to some enriching and atypical science projects.
In March, Heins’ class launched a weather balloon 102,000 feet into Earth’s atmosphere with the help of local airport personnel and meteorologists. On the day of the launch, the students counted down before the balloon carrying a GoPro camera and Lego man dressed in a space suit ascended to the edge of space.
The space launch was only possible because of two grants: the $5,000 NASA Explorer grant and a $2,500 contribution from the Captain Planet Foundation. Heins spent hours working on the grant application to provide an unforgettable experience for her students.
“We learned about the weather, water cycle, atmosphere, satellites and how to apply it to this project,” she said.
A local meteorologist visited the class during the project to discuss predictor models with the students, she said.
There is also a video of the class’ Wisconsin Fast Plants project on YouTube, which measures plant seed growth in a balloon at a high altitude, compared to the growth at ground level.
Heins shares her love of science with her students, hoping it inspires them surpass her accomplishments.
“I want them to develop a love of learning, specifically for science. We really need more scientists and engineers in the workforce,” she said. “My goal is for one of my kids to end up on Mars or back on the Moon.”