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Veerabathina helps students learn and learn how to serve

UT Arlington President James Spaniolo
UT Arlington President James Spaniolo presents Nilakshi Veerabathina with the Faculty Service Learning Award during the annual faculty awards ceremony May 2

Nilakshi Veerabathina wants students in her astronomy class for pre-service teachers to do more than just learn how to become teachers.

The class, SCIE 3304 Astronomy, includes topics such as the evolution of the universe, properties of light, galaxies, the life cycle of stars, and characteristics of the solar system. The course is designed to meet the needs of students seeking to become elementary or middle school science teachers.

Veerabathina, a physics lecturer at UT Arlington since 2005, became interested in teaching the course because she has always felt a sense of commitment to serving others, particularly those less fortunate. The opportunity to incorporate service with teaching made SCIE 3304 a perfect fit.

“As a child, I always liked to go out and spend my time in serving the community and needy people,” she said. “The pleasure and satisfaction that I received was unparalleled. The more I served, the more I learned about the self, society and my civic responsibilities.”

She calls SCIE 3304 a Serve-Teach-Learn class, because students are serving the community, they are teaching the content of astronomy using hands-on interactive activities, and they are learning astronomy through service. It was UT Arlington’s Quality Enhancement Program (QEP) that gave Veerabathina the blueprint for how to incorporate service learning into her teaching.

“I had the desire to motivate to my students to have the experience of serving the community, but I did not know how to go about it,” she said. “Through the Service Learning Teaching Circle, which was part of the Quality Enhancement Program at UT Arlington, I learned what service learning is and how I can involve my students in it.”

Her commitment to ensuring her students get more out of the class than the basics of astronomy has earned accolades for Veerabathina. On May 2, she was presented with the University’s Faculty Service Learning Award during the annual Spring Meeting of the Faculty and Associates. The award is given to a faculty member for innovations in engaged scholarship that integrate service learning into the curriculum.

“The students get a good experience from the class; it’s an eye-opening experience for many of them,” Veerabathina said. “They get new insight into the teaching profession. Some of them might decide they want to teach a different age range of kids. Some of them might even find that teaching isn’t what they really want to do.”

Veerabathina was born in India. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, chemistry and math at Kurukshetra University, a master’s in astronomy and space physics at Punjabi University and a Ph.D. in physics (astronomy) at Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences, all in India. She was a physics and astronomy instructor at Georgia State University from 2002-05 before coming to UT Arlington.

She started teaching SCIE 3304 in Summer 2008 and has taught it five times in all. Students pair off in teams of two and choose a topic from a list or create one themselves and create lesson plans based on the topic. Some of the topics include: Our Sun as a Star; Stars: Birth and Death; Gravity; Black Holes; Asteroids and Meteoroids; and Space Missions.

Courtesy photo SCIE 3304 students work with children at the Boys and Girls Club in Arlington.
Courtesy photo SCIE 3304 students work with children at the Boys and Girls Club in Arlington.

The students present their topics through hands-on activities to school-age children at various area nonprofit organizations including Mission Arlington, the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA Child Development Centre, Girls Inc., Tarrant County Juvenile Services, and the Women’s Center. The hands-on activities are designed to make astronomy easier to understand for the children. So far, over 200 students of the course have served more than 2,000 kids for more than 400 hours.

“The hands-on activities help the students develop their teaching skills and also help them learn how to use different resources. It’s a very flexible program,” Veerabathina said.

The students then write a report summarizing their preparation and presentation, detailing what they learned in relation to the classroom and themselves and what the experience taught them about community involvement, citizenship, and civic responsibility. Students also make short presentations in the classroom about their reports and reflections to their peers. The chance to interact with underprivileged kids clearly makes an impact on many students, as is evident in their comments.

“This experience has also made me want to volunteer more often,” wrote Stephanie Schneider, who took the course last summer. “Not necessarily presenting a project, but just volunteering my time to bring a smile to a child’s face.”

Another student, Jessica Wheeler, wrote after taking the course in Summer 2008: “It helped me to appreciate everyday life even more, and appreciate that I can make a difference and impact those around me in positive ways. Just to see the kids’ faces light up and to see their excitement when they grasped a concept shows how doing so little can still mean so much. You don’t have to necessarily donate money or even gifts; just your time and presence and interest bring joy and appreciation to these kids’ lives, which is very touching.”

Breanna Hernandez, who took the class last summer, wrote: “The significance of this service meant a lot to me for the fact that these kids don’t have what I had when I was little. I tried putting myself in their shoes and definitely couldn’t because I did not have an upbringing like they are having. Doing this made me feel blessed and grateful for the upbringing I did have, but also that I could maybe have an influence on the children. I liked it a lot that maybe in the future, when time permits, I could volunteer a lot more and interact with kids more.”

Veerabathina lends her time to help students in many other ways as well. For the past six years, she has led a team of UT Arlington physics students in making presentations at the annual Aviation and Transportation Career Expo at D/FW Airport, one of the largest educational events in North Texas each year. The event gives students from around the region an opportunity to learn about careers in a variety of aviation, transportation, science, math and technology fields. Since 2007, she also has served as advisor for the UT Arlington Hindu Student Council; Olympus Mons, the UT Arlington Student Astronomy Society; and the Universal Yoga-Meditation Club at UT Arlington.