Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Training Our Future Astronauts

Ron Shaneyfelt called "heads up" and scanned the sky.

After approving the rocket's pathway, the students began a countdown from five. After "one," all the students yelled, "blast off!" and watched the rocket soar into the sky.

Shaneyfelt, an informal educator who went by "Rocket Man," led 22 students on a rocket-building and launching exercise.

"With this project, the students have the opportunity to build and launch their rocket within hours," Shaneyfelt said.

After the rockets were built and the glue dried, the students, who were addressed as "rocketeers," went out to the lawn to launch the rockets one at a time at Thomas Nelson Community College's Williamsburg campus.

The rockets soared to about 200 to 300 feet and then fell back to land with parachutes deployed.

Kenneth, 10, described his rocket launch: "It went high, it could have almost got stuck in a tree."

The rocketeers got to build something and watch it fly.

Launching rockets was part of a day's activities for one of the camps held August 1-5. NASA Langley's informal education team worked with children from Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization.

For the second year, NASA Langley's Summer of Innovation program aims to give underrepresented students a chance to be involved with content otherwise not accessible.

The Summer of Innovation is an agency-wide program, with each center reaching 1,500 students. The camps work with rising fourth through ninth graders for a minimum of 20 hours of instruction, as well as follow-up months later.

NASA Langley partners with the Virginia Air and Space Center, Big Brothers/ Big Sisters and the Migratory Education Program throughout the year.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters program allows for a mentor or "big brother" for children.

"The informal education team provides hands-on activities," said Ivelisse Gilman, a NASA educator. "These activities help the children learn by exploring."

The camps were themed as a "mission to Mars," and the students were treated as astronauts in training. The informal educators hope to excite the children to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).

"This group is the right age to be the next astronauts to Mars, so we are training them to become future astronauts," said Bonnie Murray, a NASA educator.

The students were taught about rocketry, sustainability, arrangement of planets, characteristics of living off Earth and protection of astronauts in space. Many activities were hands-on.

They could build their own solar oven, which aimed to show the students that survival strategies would be different than the microwave available here on Earth. They were supplied materials and urged to think like an engineer while trying to make a working oven. If the oven captured the solar energy, the reward was sweet. They were able to enjoy a s’more snack.

Kiersten, 10, said her favorite part of the weeklong camp was making her own solar oven and then cooking her s'more.

A highlight of this year’s camps was students getting to ask questions and virtually touring the "rock yard" with the astronauts in training at Johnson Space Center. The astronauts connected with the students via the technology ClearSea, which allowed them to connect to the Digital Learning Network using a cell phone.

"They learn about topics they will experience in school," Murray said. "Our hope is that as they do exciting hands-on activities, that they can really understand Newton’s law or other lessons. When they get back into the classroom, their experience will help make sense of the information."

According to Gilman, it's also important that, "their experience was a positive, fun one."

At the end of a camp, students have a new curiosity.

"The questions they start to ask as time goes on is amazing," Murray said. "They are starting to wonder more and more."

Summer of Innovation will continue to reach students throughout the month of August and will conduct follow-ups. They hope to spark a lifelong fascination in STEM.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_SOI2011.html

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