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For Educators

The Polaris Dawn & El Sistema USA®
Student Curriculum

Most people realize it takes focus and dedication to grow as a musician. But, what may be less discussed or obvious is the fact that the larger skillset learners develop through engaging with music also equips them for success in areas far outside the musical sphere…perhaps even so far outside as to help send them into space one day, like violinist and astronaut Sarah Gillis.

El Sistema USA believes that learning music has the potential to set learners on a path of self-discovery and help develop life skills such as patience, persistence, and confidence. This educational philosophy aligns with our vision to embed excellence and equity in music education, ensuring that every student can explore their potential in a supportive community environment. By encouraging youth leadership and creativity, our programs prepare students to be resilient, expressive individuals who contribute positively to their communities. Our programs not only focus on musical proficiency but also on fostering personal growth and social connections that empower students as both artists and citizens.

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Why Sarah Highlights Music Education:
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This website contains a set of flexible learning modules inspired by Polaris Dawn crewmember, SpaceX engineer, and violinist Sarah Gillis, and her parallel passions for both aerospace engineering and music. Created by El Sistema USA® (ESUSA) in collaboration with Gillis and the Polaris team, the five modules—called Mission Prep Zones–weave together elements of Sarah Gillis’s personal story, the musical and social values of ESUSA, and key takeaways about space exploration and the Polaris Dawn Mission.

The resource is organized into five Mission Prep Zones, each centered around a unique guiding Challenge Question. Each Zone’s Challenge Question is introduced and unpacked in a video featuring Sarah Gillis and expert guests. After viewing the video, learners are invited to get hands-on with an outlined Challenge Activity that guides them to discover their connections to the Zone’s focus question.

Educators are encouraged to tailor their path through the Mission Prep Zones to best match what motivates their learners, their learning objectives, and their time constraints. For example, while you can move through all five Zones in order, you may also choose just one Zone to explore, or use several Zones in a sequence of your own devising.

Targeted Learning Environments

The videos and Challenge Activity activities in each of the five Mission Prep Zones are designed to be adaptable for use in individual, group, or classroom settings. Content emphasizes learning targets related to both Music and Social Emotional Learning standards, as well as additional connections to STEM concepts.

More ideas for classroom use, specifically addressed National Core Arts Standards and CASEL Framework elements, and printable versions of Challenge Activity activities can be found in the Classroom Expansion links found on the start page for each Mission Prep Zone. The links are also embedded within the Quick Guide to Mission Prep Zones below.

While this resource’s target range is most compatible for learners in grades 3 and above, those working with younger learners can accommodate them through additional activity scaffolding, modeling, and language adjustment.

Quick Guide to Mission Prep Zones
Daring to Dream
Challenge Question Who Supports Your Big Dreams?

Key Themes: Acknowledging experiences with mentorship and positive peer relationships, expressing gratitude

Challenge Activity (25 mins): Create messages of gratitude for a person who has supported you to imagine new possibilities for yourself, your community, or your world.

Standards: CASEL Self-Management, Relationship Skills

STEM Highlights: Many Paths to Space Exploration; What is an Engineer?; Designing EVA Suits

Joining a Stellar Crew
Challenge Question: What Strengths Do You Bring to a Team?

Key Themes: Identifying positive personal traits

Challenge Activity (20 mins): Use a graphic organizer to link favorite personal pursuits to the strengths and larger life learnings they help develop.

Standards: CASEL Self-Awareness, Relationship Skills

STEM Highlights: How Do You Tackle an 8-hour Space Walk?; Traits of a Planeteer

Training for Space Life
Challenge Question: How Might It Feel to Make Music in Microgravity?

Key Themes: Learning about physical training for astronauts; making personal connections to humans’ physical relationship to gravity on earth

Challenge Activity (15 mins): Use physical and mental experiments to bring awareness to how gravity influences the human body at all times on earth and ways gravity is a part of performing on a musical instrument
Note: It’s suggested learners use musical instruments for this challenge, but singing or a different physical activity can be substituted, as needed.

Standards: CASEL Self-Awareness; NCAS Anchor Standards #5, #10, #11

STEM Highlights: Polaris Training Adventures; Earth’s Gravity vs. Microgravity; Creating Microgravity with Parabolic Flights; Instruments on the International Space Station; A Music Teacher in Parabolic Flight

Plotting the Mission Timeline
Challenge Question: What Music Would You Bring to Space?

Key Themes: Navigating challenges by identifying emotional responses and using emotional regulation strategies

Challenge Activity (15 mins): Choose music for a mini Mission Playlist, inspired by a sample Polaris Dawn in-orbit schedule and the emotions that might come with being part of a busy day in space.

Standards: CASEL Self-Awareness, Self-Management; NCAS Anchor Standards #7, #8, #10, #11

STEM Highlights:
First Commercial Space Walk; Partner Research in Space; Preparing for Big Emotions; Internet in Dragon!, Wake-Up Calls from Earth

Looking Toward the Next Adventure
Challenge Question: What Will Space Adventures Be Like in the Future?

Key Themes: Imagining a space adventure; listening to contemporary repertoire inspired by space

Challenge Activity (30 mins): Create an original space adventure story inspired by musical ideas from Rocketship! by composer Kevin Day; imagine additional music to support storytelling.

Standards: NCAS Anchor Standards #1, #2, #6, #7, #8, #10, #11

STEM Highlights: A Starship to Mars; Representation in Space

This resource was developed by El Sistema USA® and Polaris Dawn. The curriculum was written by Erin Wight in collaboration with Sarah Gillis, Gabrielle Molina, and Elizabeth Moulthrop. The website and graphics were designed by Andres Chavarría Giraldo.
Bonus Interview Material

Check out the videos below for even more musical insights from the inspiring musicians on this curriculum’s team of Mission Guides. View and share with learners of all ages eager for stories of musicians’ paths to fulfilling musical careers and inside views of some of the many ways to be a professional musician.

Rickey Minor
Rickey explains how hard work has been critical to his professional success and describes in detail the logistically complex (but, emotionally satisfying!) job of a music producer.
Kevin Day
Kevin describes his path to becoming a composer and the support his musical parents provided along the way.
Jeri Lynne Johnson

Jeri explains the role of an orchestral conductor and shares how conducting skills and life skills share a deep connection