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Stargazing teacher alum picked for NASA assignment

Rebecca and Carl Wenning

Illinois State alumna Rebecca Wenning Vieyra and her father, Carl Wenning.

At 5 years old, she knew enough about the nighttime sky to point out a few constellations to a planetarium audience. By 11, she could identify more than 100 star clusters and nebulae scattered across the sky, something few adult astronomers can do.

Rebecca Wenning Vieyra ’07 had an excellent science teacher—her father, Carl Wenning, former Planetarium director and semi-retired physics professor. And now he’s learning from his daughter, a Bone Scholar who was home schooled until high school and graduated from University High School as a valedictorian.

Vieyra has been selected as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator, a fellowship that pairs K-12 STEM educators with federal agencies or a U.S. congressional office for an 11-month assignment. NASA chose Vieyra, who is taking a leave as a high school physics teacher in Cary to move to Washington, D.C., with her spouse, Chrystian, a software engineer, and their 3-year-old daughter.

“Sometimes you don’t know how much potential you have until opportunities open to you,” Vieyra said. “I’ve just been striving to be as good a teacher as I could be. Now I want to involve myself in education in a bigger way.”

Vieyra has come a long way from the young girl who followed her dad into the physics lab on Saturdays, playing with magnets and trying to figure out why the grape juice exploded during a fermentation experiment.

Rebecca Wenning family

Rebecca with her spouse, Chrystian, and their 3-year-old daughter.

“She always wanted to play with the toys in the physics storeroom, and I think that’s where her spark came from,” Wenning said. “She always had a really high interest in science. I did my job as a member of the Physics department and the father of a child, but she’s the one who took the ball and ran with it.”

The two recently spent nearly three weeks in Indonesia teaching and consulting with educators on high school physics, and just finished a 40-chapter book on the same topic. He taught college students how to teach physics, and she brought with her real-world experience.

“She brings a sense of reality to what I do,” Wenning said. “She took six courses with me in physics teacher education, and it’s interesting when a student says to you, ‘No dad, you’re wrong. That’s not the way it is.’ I’ve been corrected a lot in recent years, but always in the most gentle way.”

When Wenning ran the Planetarium, his daughter learned to run the projector, moving the stars and constellations. His interest in astronomy started early too, when he was 4 years old and his grandfather pointed out Venus in the evening sky.

“That’s all it took,” he said.

Vieyra remembers a poster in the Planetarium of a young girl in a spacesuit looking through a telescope.

“It said, ‘Never stop reaching for the stars and I thought, ‘That’s awesome but how many people get to do that?’”

Now she knows.

What she’ll do when her year is over is uncertain, but that doesn’t bother her.

“I wish I had a clear answer, but I’m almost glad I don’t,” she said.

Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.