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NASA’s Explorer Schools
Usually, when we think of NASA, we think of spacecraft exploring new frontiers. And that’s what they do, of course, but the national space agency also has its share in more earthly activities – activities that may well have a direct influence on the children in your life.
As part of the NASA Explorer School (NAS) venture, established in 2003, the agency partners with underserved schools across the country to provide math, science and technology programs to kindergarten students in 12th grade. When a partnership agreement is reached, teachers and a school administration work together to develop and implement a three-year action plan that responds to local challenges in the subjects mentioned above. Based on information generated from needs assessments, this personalized plan is implemented through a combination of on-site school services and distance learning networks.
Elements of the program include professional development workshops during the summer months where teams of educators meet at NASA’s nine field centers and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The week-long intensive training offers teachers the opportunity to begin integrating NASA content into existing school curricula and extends to creating and implementing action plans to address local challenges.
Throughout the school year, research-based continuing professional development includes NASA aerospace education specialists, space grant consortia, educator resource centers, and NASA education networks. Nasa.
That’s the somewhat boring explanation of what it’s all about. Concrete examples are much more exciting.
Chances are you’ve never played botball since it’s a game played only by robots. But hey, robots have to have fun too, right? For three years, students at Explorer Schools have taken on the challenge of building and programming robots to compete against opponents on a field the size of a ping-pong table. The challenge for 2006 was “Search and Rescue”. Robotics teams worked autonomously to locate a stuffed robot and its “tribble” friends. (Star Trek fans understand tribbles. They’re round, furry animals that spawn faster than spam in your inbox.) The challenge was to complete various tasks and score points in front of opposing robots. (It’s kind of like Survivor, minus the bikinis.)
Search and Rescue (and other botball challenges) provide middle and high school students with hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math learning. Competing teams built their robots from an official kit containing goodies such as 1,800 LEGO building blocks, two Xport Botball controllers (XBC, attached to Nintendo® Game Boy Advance devices) and 20 censors, including color recognition cameras. After using the parts to build their robots, the students programmed them using a version of the C computer language.
The annual botball challenges have generated such excitement that at least 13 regional tournaments are held across the United States. Hawaii is actively involved, with over 20 participating schools. The 2007 National Tournament will be held in Honolulu in July and will be one of the events of the National Conference on Educational Robotics.
The NASA website quoted Jade Bowman, NES team leader at Waimea Middle School in Hawaii, as saying, “The Botball program has been an avenue for our students to expand their horizons in many areas.” Bowman added that the botball program exposed students to new careers, taught them how to use a variety of technologies, increased self-confidence, developed complex thinking and showed the importance of team play. .
Cassini Scientists for a Day
On January 23, 2006, a group of third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade California students became “scientists for a day” and chose where to point the cameras on the Cassini spacecraft as it continued its tour of the space around Saturn. These students at Shirley Avenue Elementary School in Reseda, Calif. (part of the Explorer Network), were given 10 days to study three target options and decide which opportunity would make the most scientific sense. After much debate, they decided to take an image of the planet’s rings.
Mission planners calculated the necessary maneuvers and sent commands to the spacecraft. The students had studied Saturn before the project, so they had an idea of what the mission entailed.
The Cassini Scientist for a Day activity helped them understand how long it takes to gather scientific information and how complicated it is to make decisions. The NASA website quotes the children’s teacher, Kathy Cooper, as saying: “I was amazed to hear a fourth-grade student say, ‘You need a good eye and you have to be patient, because the science isn’t fast – we didn’t learn about the universe overnight; it takes time,” says Cooper. “The activity brought a higher level of thinking; they kept asking good questions.”
Build your own rocket
Michigan’s Southfield School was the first in the country to be designated as a NASA Exploration School. In early 2006, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama announced a $2,500 grant to students in Southfield, Michigan to help them design, build and launch their own rocket. Part of NASA’s Student Launch Initiative, the project helps students learn about engineering and teamwork through a hands-on approach to creating and launching rockets with payloads.
The student launch initiative is co-managed by the Marshall Center in partnership with the Huntsville Area Rocketry Association, a group of rocket enthusiasts and engineers who launch their own rockets. Each team of participating students designs, builds and tests their own rockets, while documenting their progress on a website. Students can seek advice from professional engineers during the design and testing phases. Teams also learn problem-solving skills, how to prepare and present proposals, and how to budget.
Teams show off and launch their rockets in a competition. Competing rockets carry a tracking device and a recoverable science payload weighing between a quarter and a half pound. The rocket must reach an altitude of one mile during flight and be reusable. After the flight, the team collects payload data, analyzes it, and reports the results to Marshall Center engineers, the project’s mentors, who evaluate each rocket and determine the winners. The winning teams receive a school trophy.
How to Become a School of Exploration
According to the website, competitive applications are accepted, and NASA Explorer School team selection takes place each spring. Up to 50 teams will be added each year, for a maximum total of 150 teams.
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