Students from Voznesenka and Sterling elementary schools work last Friday on a simulated construction project at the bottom of the pool at Kenai Central High School. The bilingual field trip was the grand finale of a cooperative effort between the two schools.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Astronauts who train at the Johnson Space Center in Houston have access to cutting-edge technology developed by top engineers and scientists. Two peninsula schools are anything but light years behind that training and they have the enthusiasm that goes with it.
To feel what it's like to walk in space, the National Aeronautics Space Administration developed the Neutral Buoyancy Tank, a training pool large enough to hold a life-size replica of the International Space Station. In it, trainees practice repairing the station and test new equipment. The astronauts also train with Russian cosmonauts because the two nations work together on the space station. NASA trainee and Sterling elementary sixth-grade teacher Allan Miller wanted to give his students these experiences.
His class has been conducting experiments in science and communication with space in mind. In December, Miller's class connected with the Russian Old Believer school Voznesenka. Miller's class met with the Voznesenka students to learn more about Russian culture and language. Miller at least wanted his students to learn some fundamental Russian letters, numbers, colors and some phrases. The next meetings were practicing satellite communication, a video conference with NASA astronaut Bryan Palaszewski from the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland Ohio, and a rocket-building exercise led by Challenger Center Flight Director Tamra Wear. Any way you cut it, the kids have learned from the experts.
The students had to recall what they learned at the latest installment of the curriculum at the Kenai pool, an underwater simulation of the microgravity environment of space like the Neutral Bouyancy Tank.
Just like the astronauts, students strapped on SCUBA gear to get into character. The task for the dive was to construct an air lock underwater using what limited communication they could, using planned hand signals. The integrated teams worked together much like the NASA training exercises Miller is familiar with.
Fifty kids went through the dive exercise and received professional advice from Dive Alaska instructor Scott Anderson. Sterling sixth-grader Trevor Steger said he had to concentrate on his breathing while diving.
"I had to breathe out of my nose to stabilize the pressure of my goggles that were sucking at my eyes. It's also hard to walk in fins," he said.
Whatever the students take away from these experiences, it's difficult to imagine they could ever forget them.
Wear said Miller is inspired to conduct memorable classes by all the teamwork done between NASA an the Russian Space Agency.
"Knowing Russian and crossing over is important to him because it happens in space all the time. It's the communication among everyone and learning each other's cultures that has been good for them. It's really cool," she said.
Miller said a crucial part of the exercises had been learning how to effectively communicate. In the weeks leading up to the microgravity task, Voznesenka and Sterling students communicated regularly by phone and e-mail as they prepared themselves for the training to follow. Then, when they met for the dive, the kids practiced with hand signals to communicate underwater.
Sixth-grade Voznesenka student Julian Polushkin said putting together the simulated air lock was not so difficult because his team figured out how to communicate before they strapped on the SCUBA gear.
"After we put the airlock together, we had to swim through it. My group figured out all the hand signals before, so it was not that difficult," he said.
Voznesenka teacher Elaine Chalup said the two classes got to know one another quickly.
"This has to be the highlight. They look forward to seeing each other every time. They are realizing they have the ability to work as a team," Chalup said.
Justin Covy, a Sterling sixth -grader, said the experience has paid off.
"This was a good opportunity to learn how to learn about Russian culture and to read Russian symbols. It's been fun working with these guys."
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