Jami Sunkel has had many titles — tennis pro, science teacher, company president — but “astronaut sidekick” is the one that grabs attention.
Sunkel, 37, co-founded Colorado Springs-based OneOrbit with former astronaut and International Space Station commander Dr. Leroy Chiao in 2015. Together they’re using lessons from space to show kids the importance of curiosity, persistence and imagination, and to teach executives and teachers about leadership, innovation and decision-making.
OneOrbit hosts corporate workshops worldwide, and runs live, virtual and international school programs. Programs address science, technology, engineering, arts and math, drug awareness, bullying and cyberbullying, and team building.
Sunkel took a winding path to her current career, starting as a tennis pro in Hawaii, next becoming the curator of a classic car museum, then teaching middle school science before launching herself into space education and entrepreneurship. She recently obtained her principal’s license and is nine weeks from completing her second master’s — this time in education leadership.
Sunkel spoke with the Business Journal about connecting character with education and the things we can learn from space.
How did your background lead to teaching?
Before teaching I was a tennis pro — I had this tennis dream, but that wasn’t going to happen. I ended up at a resort in western Colorado called Gateway Canyon, owned by Discovery Channel founder [John Hendricks]. They needed someone with some education background to work in their museum with this beautiful collection of American cars and to run their education programs. So I jumped in and became the curator of the [Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum].
That job pushed me into education, and I fell in love with teaching. I moved to Colorado Springs to manage a major automobile collection that was going to be at The Broadmoor — but that was 2008, when the market crashed, and the auto industry really crashed. I ended up being laid off and the question then was, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I really wanted to teach, so I went to UCCS and got my master’s in curriculum and instruction. I started teaching seventh-grade science at James Irwin Charter School in 2009.
How did you become interested in “teaching space”?
James Irwin was an astronaut who flew on Apollo 15 and drove a Rover on the moon, and that sparked a lot of interest in space and space education. I realized very quickly it was an avenue to get kids excited about learning, so I took advantage of that. I was the head of science by year three and four. … One day a job at the Space Foundation popped up — it wasn’t planned, but I ended up as an education specialist there, and I loved it. Our mission with the Space Foundation was to get education communities using space as the hook and the excitement for kids, and to use more experiential learning tactics. I got to train teachers on strategies I’d been using in my science classroom, lead student groups and show that space is a really powerful platform for all education.
Why does space exploration catch kids’ imaginations?
It’s inquiry-based; it’s open-ended; and it allows kids to think for themselves.
It really switches the model of education … so that the teacher isn’t giving all the content and information to the students; the kids can really think for themselves and explore. They still have to use the laws of science and math to apply their ideas, but there’s a lot more opportunity to figure things out and to think about the unknown.
What was your aim in starting OneOrbit?
[With the Space Foundation] we did education outreach programs where we’d bring astronauts to schools to talk about what it was like to live and work in space. We’d get the kids excited about space and exploration — What kid doesn’t want to meet an astronaut? — but it felt like a one-and-done program. We’d leave, and we felt it was business as usual. So our goal with the education side of OneOrbit was to build a more impactful, meaningful program for kids and teachers. What I wanted to do was to connect character with STEM education. STEM is so content-driven and tends to be on the technical side whether it’s third grade or 11th grade.
My idea was, ‘Listen, schools have the content and they have the curriculum, but they don’t necessarily have the why and the buy-in — they really don’t show why this is so powerful.’ What we’ve done with OneOrbit is try to fill in that gap with more character lessons and the motivational messages coming from an astronaut: ‘I was bullied in school; I had major struggles to overcome; school wasn’t easy; I had to work hard and gain some perspective.’ So with the education side, we tackle character as much as inquiry-based STEM education.
What’s it like to be an “astronaut sidekick”?
As the ‘sidekick,’ my role is to talk about Dr. Chiao’s experience living and working in space, to help our audience have a more impactful experience and to connect people with him and not be afraid to talk to him — it’s very intimidating when you look at his CV and all the amazing things he’s done. He’s gone to space four times; he was the commander of the [International Space] Station; he’s done six space walks; he’s fluent in Russian and Mandarin; he has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.
But of course he’s just a regular person, a husband, a father — he has 9-year-old twins. I have an 8-year-old daughter as well, so that really drives our passion for kids. What it’s ultimately all about is building that legacy and helping kids be inspired about learning.
How was the process of launching OneOrbit?
It was hard! We started July 2015 when I needed a leadership internship to finish my graduate program, and someone with a Ph.D. had to sign off on my graduate hours. The only person that worked for the Space Foundation who had a Ph.D. was Leroy, so I called upon him. I started writing education programs to partner with his story, then I built the website. We decided in March this year that this really is the dream.
Leroy felt if we pushed our business further, we could have a whole lot more success, so I left the Space Foundation; he made me a partner and gave me 50 percent of the company. He owns the other half with his wife Karen. They brought me in, I became president of the company, and away we went.
Once you leave that secure job and you don’t have a paycheck coming in every couple of weeks, that makes you a whole lot more hungry. Since then, things have really shifted and we have new programs coming out in 2016 and 2017, so we’re very excited about our direction. But starting out, it was a lot of relying on what we call our “champions list” — calling upon everyone we’d ever met or known or built a relationship with and just connecting with them, which leads to more opportunities.
Our success has really come from developing relationships, giving back as much as we can, and building a company from an idea.