Space sparks Sterling students

Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2005


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  Chris Spicer, fifth grade, looks at data before his group's video conference presentation. Photo by Layton Ehmke

Sterling Elementary sixth-graders held a video conference Friday with students at Lakeview Elementary School in Warsaw, Indiana. The students present their results of scientific experiments to find the best insulation from the drastic temperatures of space.

Photo by Layton Ehmke

Next week, Sterling Elementary teacher, Allan Miller, will go to the Space Exploration Educators conference at National Aeronautics Space Administration headquarters in Houston, Texas to expand a network of those who teach the science of space. Miller's class has seen success working with NASA due to the connections Miller made while interviewing and testing to become an astronaut.

Miller directs his class to the history of human space exploration. One of the main projects is to simulate team building critical to the 1995 film based on the true story of NASA's Apollo 13 mission.

The whole idea come about when Miller started talking with another teacher, Dan Wray from Indiana, who also was interested in teaching about space. Miller also made a host of other useful connections with specialists, scientists, test pilots, and astronauts.

"We decided we wanted to do something on Apollo, and came up with the idea, then modernized it." Miller said. "The kids know it's not easy to get to the moon. We talk about the explosion in space and how they started building up carbon dioxide. They had to build their own scrubber out of paper and duct-tape they scrounged up and threw together to save their lives."

Miller and Wray created an experiment that would demonstrate a real dilemma facing astronauts in space, which must be solved by students who are teamed in groups of four.

"The scenario is that there is damage the motor of a solar space station. The problem is that it's either negative or positive 200 degrees Celsius, so students designed a device to insulate it using things they would find around the station," Miller said.

Students talked with astronauts in Houston who told them what types of materials would be lying around the space ship they could use in the project.

"Through NASA, I was provided some micro computers that we stuck in the middle of their creations to measure temperature. Then I put them in a freeze at 70 below and conducted the experiment. Later, the kids opened up their creations, and brought up the data. We plotted how well their insulation units did," Miller said.

In Sterling, students made insulation devices to protect from cold. Each project was frozen in dry ice while a micro thermometer measured the temperature inside. In the meantime, Indiana students built their projects to protect against extreme heat.


Chris Spicer, fifth grade, looks at data before his group's video conference presentation.

Photo by Layton Ehmke

Friday, the two classes came together in a video conference with Lakeview Middle School in Warsaw, Indiana, where the two classes exchanged the results of their work.

Carly Lund, one of Miller's students at Sterling, said the Indiana class did "a pretty good job," with their end of the tests.

"I think they had a tougher job than we did, because we already know how to keep things warm in Alaska," she said. Carly's group, the Flammables, did well. Their device kept above freezing for roughly one hour.

Haili Hoeldt, Carly's teammate, said learning about space has been fun.

"Who knows? Maybe we might get interested in becoming astronauts," Haili said.

Miller said he has had good support from NASA and the connections he made in Houston.

"NASA's mission statement is to inspire the next generation. They are 100 percent behind me. They know they can do all this cool stuff, and drop whatever they're doing to help the class," he said. "It's a great lesson in science, they really want to know how things work," he said.

Having video conferences has gotten Miller's class in touch with scientists at the Johnson Space Center, where students can watch experiments in the neutral buoyancy tank, a lesson no school could do on its own. Miller said it's the next best thing to a field trip.

"They sky is the limit with the video conferences. We can talk to anybody in the world, it's hugely powerful," he said.

Dan Wray, teacher Lakeview Middle School, Warsaw Ind., said this is a good way to capture kid's attention,

"Text books don't cut the mustard as far as keeping kids interested in learning. It is authentic learning because out in the real world there are a lot of ways to answer a question. This demonstrates how that can be done, and how it can be explained."

Wray said the video conference has an underlying tone with regard to learning about Alaskan kids 4,000 miles away.

"My students find we're a lot more alike than different which is a good side light. 12 year olds are 12 year olds no matter where they are," Wray said.

Miller said the subject material is all stuff he could teach in the classroom out of a text book, but prefers finding the knowledge in real life.

"These are pivotal years. If they decide that learning is a chore, the next six years could be a downward spiral. All the research says you have to use the tools and be active. You won't see kids sitting and listening in my class. They want to know how they did and what there is to learn."

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