Rhonda Walker Christensen, a 1981 Brownwood High School graduate, has celebrated a number of milestones in her life, but this past June was the most important.
Diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in November 2007, Christensen celebrated the fifth anniversary of the stem cell transplant that saved her life this past June.
“I celebrated my five-year transplant birthday on June 4,” Christensen said.
Looking back on her initial diagnosis, Christensen said, “It was pretty shocking, but I was mostly concerned about my children. They were in the seventh grade and a freshman in college then.
“My faith, friends and family kept me going. My parents (Dudley and Twila Walker), who live in Brownwood, stayed with me the whole time and took care of my younger son. I had great doctors at Baylor and a lot of people prayed for me.”
After her initial two rounds of chemotherapy, Christensen became so ill she was admitted into ICU.
“They couldn’t do chemo anymore so they decided to do a transplant,” Christensen said. “First they try and see if your siblings match and none of mine matched, so we had to look to the National Marrow Registry. There’s a 50 percent chance you can find someone and we did. She donated her whole stem cells to me in June 2008.”
Elizabeth Jordan, a resident of California, made the donation and she and Christensen have remained close. In fact, Christensen attended Jordan’s wedding over Valentine’s Day weekend.
“Everyone should be on the National Marrow Registry,” Christensen said. “There’s no reason not to be. It could save a life.”
Before and since her illness, Christensen has developed a thirst for teaching that can never be quenched, as she has made it her life’s goal to provide insight to students, as well as other teachers, on ways to improve the learning experience.
Christensen’s official title is research scientist at the University of North Texas, but the foundation of her position revolves around teaching.
“I got my undergraduate degree in elementary education and then I taught for five years,” Christensen said. “Then I went and got my master’s in computer education, then I went back and got a doctorate in interdisciplinary information science. What I do now, I combine all those things in my education and work with National Science Foundation grants.”
Technology, particularly when used in the classroom, is a passion for Christensen, which fueled the pursuit of both her master’s and doctorate degrees from North Texas.
“I was really interested in technology when I first started teaching,” Christensen said. “We had one computer that I had to roll to the classroom from the library every day to use. It was an Apple 2, nothing much to it, just a floppy drive. I was in Galveston then.
“When I moved to Dallas, I started going back to school and studying computer education because I was very interested in that. I worked in a school as a computer teacher. You need that experience before you work with others.
“Then I went back to school again to get my doctorate, and I started teaching pre-serviced teachers and also doing a lot of inservices on how to use technology in a classroom. Then I got interested in research and what difference that makes. I got my doctorate and did my dissertation on helping teach the teachers how to use technology, and what effect that has on their students. Does it make a difference in their attitude toward technology for students? That was 1997. Since then, I’ve been all over the state with technology integration stuff. In the U.S., I do a lot of conferences sharing data findings and things like that.”
The information Christensen gathers from her teachings can be dispersed in a variety of ways or used as the basis to write additional grants to address a need based on her findings.
“I’ve been on soft money since 1999 and I’ve been working on government funded grants my whole career almost,” Christensen said. “I write grants and then when they’re funded I implement them. Right now, we have a National Science Foundation grant to work with middle school kids and measure standby power, which is power being used when appliances aren’t being used, just sitting there plugged in, and there’s a ton of waste of standby power. We work with kids all over the country, they’re in Hawaii, Vermont, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and I even have a class in Dublin.
“Then we gather data, and that’s what my whole career has been like, data analysis, too. We gather the data and write reports, present papers, write papers that appear in journals and present them at conferences to let other people know and disseminate the information.”
Christensen most recently submitted a grant to use augmented reality with handheld devices at the Dallas Arboretum.
“I’m always waiting on a new grant to come in,” Christensen said. “I’m very excited about the possibly that kids can keep learning about careers and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). We have a shortage of Americans to do some jobs that are available in the U.S. These kids don’t even equate what a STEM career is, what a career in science really does. Unless your parents do that, you don’t really know about the careers.
“We’re working with an online gaming service to create some overtly clear career paths so kids will play a game and learn what this person does. For instance, the energy auditor does this, so it makes it feel like you’ve earned an energy audit badge, or something like that. You have to do things to earn a badge and understand careers, be it technical or professional. You need to have both in there so kids can understand what they’re doing in classrooms and hopefully it leads to a career.”
The use of new technology, like handheld devices, as learning tools has come a long way since Christensen began her teaching career.
“In my first job in Dallas, back in 1990, all we had was email,” Christensen said. “I got in contact with someone in New Zealand and we started having kids do curriculums related to water and studying water in our area, and they shared it with email. And the kids would get excited to send emails back and forth to the kids in New Zealand. The most vivid thing to me, it’s one day later there, so we came into the classroom and had one computer hooked to a modem, dial up. We were all sitting around the computer and it pops up Feb. 14 in New Zealand. It was only Feb. 13 in Dallas. The kids said, ‘It’s already Valentine’s Day there,’ and they got so excited about that. Even though we tell them about the different day and that the time zones are different, I don’t think it really hit them until they see something like that and it matters to them. I’ll never forget that.”
While the constant change in technology can at times be frustrating, making sure teachers are up to speed with the change plays a huge role in future educations.
“It’d be a lot easier to teach English if technology hadn’t changed,” Christensen said with a laugh. “We’re constantly having to upgrade and update everything because it changes so much. The kids are way ahead of the parents and the teachers. It’s more about really preparing teachers to be ready in the classroom for what they have and what the kids are going to know. It’s really hard to stay ahead of that curve because it changes so quickly, especially with social media and every kid having their own handheld device now. We found you have to prepare the teachers before you bring anything into the classroom. You have to prepare the teachers or they won’t use it, and it will be a disaster and never work.”