A cake designed and baked by Judkins. Credit: NASA/Tennessee Judkins
intern, internship, SCaN intern project 

Rooting Space in Place: NASA Intern Employs Cultural Relevance in Outreach

By Emily Cavanagh

July 8, 2019

“What is this?”

Qaġġuna Tennessee Judkins sat cross-legged on the floor of the Goddard Visitor Center and held a compass up to a circle of five eager summer campers. The students inched closer, their interest piqued by the unfamiliar device.

She wasn’t just showing students an interesting object. She was teaching them about auroras, space weather, indigenous culture and space navigation – all while practicing an outreach activity she created and implemented as part of her 2019 NASA summer internship.

Judkins, a native Alaskan of Iñupiat heritage who lives in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, (formerly Barrow, Alaska), is no stranger to activity planning. At home, Judkins develops units for the North Slope Borough School District. There, she splits her time between the classroom and administration, localizing the curriculum and mentoring teachers in North Slope history, culture, government and science.

In essence, she translates material for Iñupiat students, both literally and figuratively, finding ways to make education more culturally relevant to her community.

“Culturally relevant pedagogy,” the study of how knowledge is transferred from teacher to student, “aligns content with your student population,” said Judkins. “It puts content into a context that best fits their lifestyle, aligning with their ways of thinking and improving outcomes.”

Place-based learning explores students' connections with local history, environment or culture.

“Sometimes,” Judkins said, “there are harder concepts that you're trying to teach. You can use place-based learning – Iñupiaq comparisons and contexts – to make them more easily understandable.

“For example, [in Utqiaġvik], we don’t have trees. If you’re prescribing a lesson plan that has a lot to do with trees, our students won’t be as familiar with the underlying content and therefore have more trouble with the concept you’re trying to teach them.”

Instead of trying to teach using unfamiliar context, Judkins engages indigenous students with familiar Iñupiat and North Slope culture, drawing on subjects like Northern Lights oral history and traditional navigation methods. In the original activity she developed using a compass, Judkins merges Western and Iñupiat science, providing students with the opportunity to explore new ideas, like building a compass using magnets, in familiar contexts.

In spring of 2018, Judkins earned her Master of Arts in teaching with an emphasis on secondary education. Earning this degree felt like a calling; “I've always subconsciously taught people and been more of a leader than a follower.”

Her biggest inspiration to work in education occurred when she was 22 years old after a local curriculum change taught Iñupiat and North Slope history.

“I kept wondering, ‘Why wasn't this taught to me in high school?’" she said.

The desire to learn more in conjunction with her local school district’s mandate that students take courses in both North Slope history and government, made the choice to work in education easy.

“It was like the stars aligned,” she said of the timing. The localized, place-based learning that inspired Judkins to work in education is a central part of her philosophy of education.

At home, Judkins serves eight villages and eleven schools. Her ability to adapt to multiple learning environments is one of the qualities that made her the ideal fit for her summer position in the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project (SIP). During her internship, Judkins provided insight into existing outreach practices, teaching the SCaN Policy and Strategic Communications (PSC) team at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, methods for applying place-based learning and cultural relevancy.

SCaN has an upcoming initiative to enhance outreach in native populations near NASA ground stations, especially near White Sands Complex in Las Cruses, New Mexico. PSC team member Danny Baird, Judkins’ mentor for the summer, spoke to the importance of Judkins’ project:

“Tennessee’s unique expertise in place-based learning allows her to contextualize our activities in a way that is both culturally relevant and speaks to SCaN’s goals,” said Baird. “By rooting educational lessons to the space in which they’re taught, they become both better suited and more interesting to the students.

“Ultimately, it allows us to expand and re-contextualize SCaN’s message.”

Outside of her professional work, Judkins engages deeply with Iñupiat culture.

“I try to get involved as much as I can,” she said. “Practicing our traditions is really near and dear to me. I try to practice them in the way they were traditionally done, because I don't want to lose that.”

Traditional Iñupiat practices include activities such as whaling, hunting and sewing. In addition to participating in these activities, Judkins is improving her fluency in the Iñupiat language.

“I'm a second language learner, so I'm not 100 percent fluent,” said Judkins. “My life goal is to become more and more proficient.”

Another of Judkins’ passions is baking. While continuing her work in education, Judkins hopes to open a bakery one day. Her work can be found on Instagram, her handle: @myfuturecupcakery.

After her internship ended and she returned to Utqiaġvik, Judkins continued remotely working with SCaN on culturally relevant and place-based education initiatives. She hopes to take the activities she created and implement them within her district, sharing them as a resource for other educators to use in their classrooms.

“I have enjoyed building relationships and making connections during my time at NASA,” Judkins said, “and [I] am really looking forward to wat comes next.”

To learn more about SIP or SCaN, visit NASA.gov/SCaN. To apply for internships, visit intern.nasa.gov.