Sandwich instructions teach space communications

Posted: Monday, April 23, 2001

Soldotna Chamber of Com-merce members Tuesday got a taste of activities used to teach school children about space at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.

"So much of what happens in space is communication-related, that a lot of what happens with our kids is related to communications between team members," Steve Horn, Challenger Center director, told a reporter.

During the chamber luncheon at Riverside House, he laid out a loaf of bread, jars of peanut butter and marmalade and a knife.

"Your assignment is to create a written set of clear and concise instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," he told the chamber members.

They broke into groups of three and four people. When they were done, Horn asked what they had learned.

People don't listen, one replied.

Never work by committee, quipped another.

But Horn asked how much people do alone and how much they do with others.

"The reality is that doing things by committee is a way of life," he said.

He asked Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey and Kenai Mayor John Williams to test one group's instructions.

"I'm inviting the mayors of Kenai and Soldotna to come forward in a spirit of glasnost and perestroika and bonding between the two cities," he said.

Carey read directions while Williams, licking peanut butter from his fingers, made the sandwich. When he was done, he took a bite.

Then, Horn passed pens to half the chamber participants and gave them 60 seconds to sell the pens to whomever was seated across the table. Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Tim Navarre, on the buying side, said he thought he had one up on assembly member Milli Martin.

"At first, I thought I had her because she said she only needed 50 cents, and I only had $5," he said. "Then, she said that if I'd give her $5, she'd donate $4.50 to United Way, so I had to do it."

Horn said the sellers did much more talking than the buyers.

"Often, as we deal with kids, we know that to improve our communication skills, we need to become active listeners," he said. "We have to ask effective questions and wait for the response. ... What questions could you have asked that would have identified your customers' needs?"

The Challenger Center, which opened to students in April last year, now has four components, Horn said. It puts visiting students through simulated space missions at the center in Kenai. It sends teachers and NASA educators to teach in schools across Alaska. It teaches to schools over the Internet, and it conducts summer camps and workshops.

At a space camp planned this summer in Anchorage, students will simulate weightlessness with scuba gear in a swimming pool, Horn said, and communications will be a big part of the lesson.

"We'll have exercises to assemble things underwater without verbal communications, using hand signals or perhaps grease pencils on a plastic pad," he said. "The same kids will fly a mission here at the Challenger Center."

Horn said spring bookings for simulated space missions have exceeded expectations. From now through May, he expects 2,500 to 2,800 children to visit the center, which is operating eight to 10 hours per day. Spring is a popular time for class trips, he said. He is exploring incentives to encourage more classes to come at other times of the year.

This year, Horn said, about 5,500 children from 87 schools in 12 Alaska school districts will visit the center. He is working with local legislators and Alaska's congressional delegation to find $2.5 million to add classrooms, dormitories and lab space.

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