NASA’s Explorer Schools

Usually when we think of NASA, we think of spacecrafts exploring new frontiers. And so they do, of course, but the nation’s space agency has its hand in more earthly pursuits, as well–pursuits that may well have a direct influence on the children in your life.

In the NASA Explorer School (NAS) undertaking, created in 2003, the agency partners with under-serviced schools across the nation to bring mathematics, science and technology curriculum to students ranging from K-12. When a partnership agreement is reached, teachers and a school administrator team up to develop and implement a three-year action plan that addresses local challenges in the subjects mentioned earlier. Based on information generated through needs assessments, this customized plan is delivered through a combination of on-site school services and distance-learning networks.

Program elements include professional development workshops during the summer months in which teams of educators meet at the nine NASA Field Centers and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The intensive, one-week training provides opportunities for the teachers to begin to integrate NASA content into the existing school curricula, and extends to creating and implementing action plans to address local challenges.

Throughout the school year, ongoing research-based professional development includes NASA aerospace education specialists, Space Grant consortia, educator resource centers, and NASA Education networks.

That’s the somewhat boring explanation of what it’s all about. The real-life examples are much more exciting.

Botball, Anyone?

Chances are you’ve never played botball–given that it’s a game played only by robots. But, hey, robots have to have some fun too, right? For the past three years, students at Explorer Schools have been accepting the challenge to build and program robots to compete with 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 plush robot and his “tribble” friends. ( Star Trek fans understand tribbles. They’re the round, furry animals that reproduce faster than spam in your Inbox.) The challenge was to complete various tasks and score points ahead of the opposing robots. (It’s a bit like Survivor, without the bikinis.)

Search and Rescue (and the other botball challenges) gives middle and high school students a hands-on learning application in science, technology, engineering and math. The competing teams built their robots from an official kit containing such goodies as 1,800 LEGO building blocks, two Xport Botball Controllers (XBCs, attached to Nintendo® Game Boy Advance devices), and 20 censors, including color-recognition cameras. After using the pieces to build their robots, students programmed them using a version of the C computer language.

The annual botball challenges have generated so much enthusiasm that at least 13 regional tournaments are held across the United States. Hawaii is actively involved, with more than 20 participating schools. The 2007 national tournament will be held in Honolulu in July, and will be one of the events at the National Conference on Educational Robotics.

NASA’s Web site quoted Jade Bowman, the NES team lead at Hawaii’s Waimea Middle School, as saying, “The Botball program has been an avenue for our students to broaden their horizons in many areas.” Bowman added that the botball program exposed the students to new careers, taught them to use a variety of technology, increased self confidence, developed complex thinking, and showed the importance of team playing.

Cassini Scientists for a Day

On January 23, 2006, a group of California third, fourth and fifth graders became “scientists for a day,” and selected where to point the cameras on the Cassini spacecraft as it continued its tour of the space around Saturn. These students of Shirley Avenue Elementary School in Reseda, California (part of the Explorer network), had 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 needed maneuvers and sent the commands to the spacecraft. The students had been studying Saturn prior to the project, so they had some idea of what the mission entailed.

The “Cassini Scientist for a Day” activity helped them understand how much time it takes to gather scientific information, and how complicated it is to make decisions. The NASA Web site quotes the kids’ teacher, Kathy Cooper, as saying, “I was stunned to hear a fourth grader saying, ‘You need a good eye and have to be patient, because science isn’t quick–we didn’t learn about the universe overnight; it takes time,'” Cooper says. “The activity brought a higher level of thinking; they kept coming up with good questions.”

Build Your Own Rocket Ship

Michigan’s Southfield School was the nation’s first to be designated a NASA Explorer 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 more about engineering and teamwork through a hands-on approach to create and launch rockets with payloads.

The Student Launch Initiative is jointly 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 participating student team designs, builds and tests its own rockets, while documenting their progress on a Web site. Students can request guidance from professional engineers during the design and testing phases. The teams also learn problem-solving skills, how to prepare and present proposals, and how to budget.

The teams display and launch their rockets in a competition. Competing rockets carry a tracking device and a recoverable science payload weighing between one quarter and one half-pound. The rocket must reach an altitude of one mile during flight and be reusable. After flight, the team collects data from the payload, 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 an Explorer School

According to the Web site, competitive applications are accepted and selection of the NASA Explorer School teams occurs each spring. Up to 50 teams will be added each year, for a maximum total of 150 teams.

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