BELOIT - Triplet teachers who got their start in Beloit are helping to cultivate a love of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) via a motor coach disguised as the International Space Station.
Sharon Ryan, Sandy Smith and Sue Bushman - formerly with the last name of Fortune - take turns running the mobile classroom they call the STEM Shuttle. On Monday, the STEM Shuttle was docked at McNeel Intermediate School for the day. Ryan and Smith were teaching on board the vehicle along with "pilot" Dennis Cihlar. Because the STEM Shuttle usually features two teachers at one time, sister Bushman was not available.
Two of the triplets explained how they grew up in Stevens Point and found work together for two years in Beloit starting in 1972. Ryan taught at Converse Elementary School, Smith taught at Merrill Elementary School and Bushman taught at the former Morgan Elementary School.
The sisters eventually moved on, with Ryan settling in Wausau, Wisconsin with her husband. Ryan started the Dream Flight USA Foundation which owns and operates the STEM Shuttle, a mobile classroom designed for fourth through eighth graders. When the program originally started in 1990, Ryan said it was run out of a yellow school bus which was designed to resemble the inside of a space shuttle. It then visited schools which would be decorated like planets.
"I wanted to offer students a more hands-on learning approach," Ryan said.
In 2008, Ryan took some advice from NASA astronaut friends who had toured her school bus to transform her mobile classroom into the International Space Station. While the space shuttle had been a transport vehicle, the space station set-up would allow for a variety of learning opportunities such as medical and robotics stations, a module about the ozone and other science activities related to NASA's research in space.
"They can learn how to retrieve a satellite with a robotic arm or what the ozone layer is all about and why we need it," Ryan said.
Over the years, Ryan brought her two other sisters on board. Today, they visit about 60 schools a year. With the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing on July 20, they've had an influx of requests coming in for their mobile space-related activities.
Ryan and Smith said they like how the mobile classroom helps students brainstorm possible career interests, something they never had a lot of time to cultivate in their traditional teaching environments. They also enjoy helping students do more group work, which is becoming more common in business and industry.
For more information visit www.stemshuttle.com.