Janet Ivey-Duensing: How One Teacher Is Changing the Planet

by | Apr 2024

“SCIENCE ISN’T just for the boys, Janet. It’s for the girls, too.” This simple statement made in 1978 by fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Ernestine Yarborough forever changed the trajectory of Janet Ivey-Duensing’s life. 

Referring to Yarborough, Ivey-Duensing said, “She stoked the fires of my dreams with her affirmations. On different occasions, she told me, ‘What a brilliant writer you are!’ or, ‘What an extraordinary thinker you are! You could become a scientist, or an artist, or perhaps both!’”

When it came to science, Mrs. Yarborough encouraged students to incorporate it into everything, including their spelling words. The teacher brought a telescope to the playground on a fall evening when Ivey-Duensing was 10 years old, and she gazed at the stars and planets for the first time. 

“I can honestly say it was in Mrs. Yarborough’s classroom that I fell head over heels for the solar system, the stars, and all the planets. I hold steadfastly to the belief that the seeds of my life’s mission were sown within those hallowed classroom walls. Her example of what it means to be a teacher and educator is the metric by which I hold myself accountable.”

Following that love of space and science her beloved teacher had inspired, Ivey-Duensing launched “Janet’s Planet” 25 years ago. The program airs nationwide on more than 140 public television stations geared toward ages 7-12. It focuses on science, space, history, and health. 

Quickly rising to become a staple in children’s entertainment and education, she has since received 12 Regional Emmys and five Gracie Awards. She also received an award for an educational video she wrote and produced, titled “Exploring Microgravity.”

During NASA’s New Horizon mission, Ivey-Duensing collaborated with Chief Principal Investigator Alan Stern to increase educational outreach. Her #DearPluto project garnered international outreach and resulted in letters to the dwarf planet pouring in from all over. Her favorite #DearPluto letter came from a fourth grader, Merrol Hyde, whose letter included the hashtag #WeWantOur9thPlanetBack!

For 15 years, she was also the co-host of “Tennessee’s Wildside.” Additionally, she’s appeared in many commercials, television shows, and film credits. Guests from across the country have joined Ivey-Duensing on stage during her thrilling live performances of “Tour of the Solar System” and “Exploring Microgravity.” As an accomplished author, she has published several books, including a series that celebrates lesser-known female scientists called “Unsung Genius.”

Although her resume overflows with success, awards, and accolades, Ivey-Duensing said that receiving the Permission to Dream Award from the New World Institute, along with receiving the Sally K. Ride Excellence in Education Award from the American Astronautical Society (AAS), is the capstone of her career so far.

“Sally K. Ride was more than an astronaut; she was a pioneer, a hero, and a symbol of possibility for so many— myself included. Witnessing her journey, from the announcement of the first female astronaut candidates to her historic venture into space, was a pivotal moment that inspired countless individuals — myself among them. Sally Ride’s vision went beyond breaking through the atmosphere; she saw the stars as an opportunity to spark curiosity and passion, especially among young girls in the scientific realm.

“To be acknowledged by the esteemed AAS with an award honoring her legacy feels both surreal and immensely gratifying. It’s a recognition that not only honors my dedication to education but also stands as a tribute to Sally K. Ride’s trailblazing spirit, reminding us all of the limitless potential within the realms of STEM and the importance of nurturing that curiosity and exploration in future generations.” 

Ivey-Duensing is a dedicated volunteer at Jack Anderson Elementary School, where she supports fifth-grade teachers with their yearly Project Based Learning initiatives. Since 2019, with the help of Hunt Brothers Pizza, she has sent 40 students to the United States Space and Rocket Center Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. She hopes to send 14 more this summer. 

“When it comes to the students I’ve had the privilege of working with, they’re nothing short of inspiring. Engaged and eager, they constantly surprise me with their potential and genius ideas. These moments, where I witness their confidence grow or witness their curiosity flourishing, are what keep me dedicated to this work. It’s the potential for these seemingly simple acts to inspire and shape the paths of these incredible students.” 

Ivey-Duensing still dreams of going to space. And if she doesn’t make it there, she is certain one of her students will. GN 

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