Sterling Elementary School students Madison White and Georgia West work together on a project to build an experimental paper airplane during a NASA presentation at their school last week. Students were told to "Conceive it, believe it, achieve it."
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"In 15 years," Brian Kruse asks a classroom of first-graders at Nikiski North Star Elementary School, "how old will you be?"
Because, Kruse explains, in about 15 years, when this group of first-graders will be 21 or 22 and just finishing college, NASA is planning on having regular manned space flights to the moon and, perhaps, will be shooting for Mars.
And NASA is going to need a new group of people with the imagination to envision such a journey and the science and technology skills to make it happen.
It's been more than 30 years since the last lunar landing, Kruse said, and only a dozen people have ever set foot on the moon. But for each person that walked on the moon, there were a thousand other people working to make it happen, and, Kruse said, they all had one thing in common: They dared to dream about doing something that had never been done before.
"It's all about keeping on dreaming," Kruse told the class of first-graders. "Don't ever stop dreaming. Keep working hard in school, and keep trying to make those dreams come true."
NASA's logo is projected on Brian Hawkins, an aerospace education specialist representing NASA's Ames Research Center, as he points to a detail in a slide show during a presentation to students at Sterling Elementary School last week.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kruse, who was visiting the Kenai Peninsula last week in his position as the NASA Explorer Schools Coordinator, split his time between Nikiski North Star and Sterling elementary schools as they launched into the Explorer Schools program with NASA specialists visiting the schools during the day and Family Math and Science nights on Thursday and Friday.
"They are really excited," said Sterling teacher Teri Hoffman of the reaction of her fifth- and sixth-grade class to being in the program. "The great thing about this is that NASA gives opportunities for students to have incredible experiences that without this program and their support, they never would have had a chance to experience. For here, a small town in the middle of Alaska, it's huge."
The NASA Explorer Schools program is a partnership between a school, or in the case of Nikiski North Star and Sterling, two schools, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The objectives of the program are: to increase student understanding of and interest and participation in science, math and technology and apply those concepts; to expose students to careers in those fields; and to increase parent involvement in student learning.
The partnership provides support and professional development for educators and puts NASA's resources at the disposal of teachers and students in the classroom.
"Overall, NASA's intent is helping kids to investigate, get excited, explore, and ultimately, to understand math and science and technology," said Emma Walton, a retired Anchorage educator working as an aerospace education specialist for NASA.
Sterling and Nikiski North Star applied to the program last year and were two of just 50 schools in the country accepted into the three-year program. Hoffman and Allan Miller from Sterling, Annie Kendall and Terry Durrant from Nikiski North Star, and Nikiski North Star principal Lori Manion traveled to Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., for training over the summer and over the next year will be charged with bringing other teachers in their buildings up to speed on the resources and technology available. By the end of the three-year period, that expertise will have been disseminated to other schools throughout the district.
Hoffman said the program offers teachers a terrific way to enhance their curriculums by integrating the resources provided by NASA into their classrooms.
"The kids get to experience things instead of learning out of a textbook," Hoffman said.
Kendall said integrating all the new technology can be a daunting task.
"It's time-consuming and intimidating, but the district has been real supportive," Kendall said. "... It's fun and exciting, and sometimes overwhelming. There's so much you want to do with students, but their reaction has been positive."
Kendall said all the teachers at Nikiski North Star would be tying in units on aeronautics, from literature about flight to history units on the Wright brothers.
The partnership between the two schools is going well, Kendall said. The five-person NASA school team immediately clicked, and Kendall said the staffs are getting to know each other.
The technology can be used not only to access NASA resources, but also to communicate between schools. For example, two classes could run the same experiment, then use the digital video conference equipment to compare their results.
Walton said the first 50 schools to participate in the program are just finishing their three-year partnership, and while there might not be any numbers available showing academic improvement just yet, she also is sure the program is making a difference.
"(The program is about) seeing kids excited, seeing kids want to study math and science," Walton said. "I have a personal problem about how we've touted math and science as being hard. Yes, it's rigorous, but we can encourage kids to do more than they ever thought possible."
So, might Sterling or Nikiski North Star have the next Neil Armstrong in their midst?
"I hope we do," Hoffman said, citing a lesson from NASA specialist Brian Haw-kins. "He said, 'Don't ever say no, always say maybe.'
"You never know. Great things are going to be happening in the next 20 years, and these kids are at the prime age to take part in that."
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