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Published in Print: July 18, 2007, as Teacher-Astronaut Out to Lift Academic Sights of Students

Teacher-Astronaut Out to Lift Academic Sights of Students

NASA underlines educational agenda of shuttle mission.

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The space shuttle Endeavour, slated to begin an 11-day mission Aug. 7, will carry an educational payload that includes two “growth chambers” loaded with basil and lettuce seeds, and a list of activities to be led by teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara R. Morgan.

The activities targeted to K-12 students are add-ons to the shuttle crew’s primary missions, which include attaching an 11-foot truss segment to the orbiting International Space Station, NASA officials announced last week.

Joyce Winterton, NASA’s assistant administrator for education, said the agency’s educational goals include attracting, retaining, and improving students for the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines. With that link to the so-called STEM subjects, the space agency is sounding a national policy theme that has seen renewed prominence in recent years.

Beyond that emphasis, Ms. Morgan said the shuttle mission would carry a broader educational bounty.

“Every aspect of everything that’s going on in that mission—there is something that connects to every discipline that we teach,” she said in a July 11 telephone interview from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston. “There are real-world applications, and they are a lot of fun, very exciting and adventurous, and it’s stuff that kids seem to be motivated by.”

Various media organizations have been interviewing teacher and astronaut Barbara R. Morgan ahead of her upcoming passage on the space shuttle Endeavour STS-118 mission to the International Space Station. Listen to excerpts of Ms. Morgan's comments on her upcoming mission and the impact she hopes it has on today's students.
—Photo and Audio courtesy of NASA

A former elementary school science teacher from Boise, Idaho, Ms. Morgan was the backup to teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, the social studies teacher who died when the shuttle Challenger exploded during its ascent on Jan. 28, 1986.

Ms. Morgan, now 55, subsequently completed the full astronaut-training program and qualified as a mission specialist. On the upcoming mission, she will operate the shuttle’s mechanical arm to wield a video camera and later to transfer cargo to the space station, according to NASA.

Although the mission is scheduled for a time when most schools will be on summer break, follow-up educational activities are planned for this fall and curricular materials will be available.

Linking Down to Students

On STS-118, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s label for the mission, Ms. Morgan will help conduct as many as three live “downlink” sessions, in which students will talk to members of the shuttle crew, NASA officials said at a press briefing from Houston on July 10. The agency made the briefing available to reporters in Washington.

Students’ participation in the 20-minute downlink sessions would be from one of three sites: the Discovery Center of Idaho, in Boise; the Challenger Center for Space, in Alexandria, Va.; and the Robert L. Ford K-8 School, in Lynn, Mass. Sessions are to be broadcast live on NASA Television.

See Also
The Sally Ride Science Blog will feature exclusive entries from Irene Klotz, a journalist who will be in contact with Morgan throughout the mission. Read the recent post: ...The night before launch.

The first downlink, at the Boise center, will be on the seventh day of the mission, or Aug. 13, if the shuttle launches on schedule from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We’re using the event to put space back in front of kids and get some interest going again,” said Douglas A. Lambuth, the Discovery Center’s spokesman, adding that 18 students are to ask questions. The other two sessions are part of an extended schedule and will take place only if the mission is extended to 14 days, officials of the space agency said.

Ms. Winterton, the NASA education official, said Ms. Morgan was deeply involved in planning the mission’s educational activities and helped frame them within three “big questions” about people in space: How will they live and work, how will they grow food, and how will they stay healthy and fit?

Seeding Interest in Space

In an activity related to the food question, members of the shuttle crew will transfer to the space station two small, collapsible growth chambers for plants, one containing basil seeds, the other containing lettuce seeds. The transparent tops of the chambers are accordion-shaped and will expand as the plants grow. A space-station crew member will tend the plant experiment and take video and still images of the progress of growth.

That activity is connected to NASA’s school-based “engineering design challenge” that will be open to any teachers and students starting in the fall. It consists of having students design and build growth chambers that could cultivate plants on the moon, a prospect that is part of NASA’s vision for eventually sending humans to Mars.

This fall, teachers will be able to request basil seeds that were among the 10 million seeds that will be flown on STS-118, which NASA will distribute along with basil seeds that were not flown, for comparison. Students will grow the seeds in their growth chambers.

The engineering design challenge was devised with the help of the International Technology Education Association and is based on the group’s national standards for technology education, said Shelli D. Meade, the research-projects director of ITEA, based in Reston, Va. The association has helped organize professional-development sessions for teachers about the challenge prior to the mission.

In another unit that NASA is offering schools, students will learn exercises modeled after the real-life physical training of humans traveling in space. The NASA Fit Explorer project calls for students to track their progress, learn the science behind fitness, and relate physical Earth-based needs to the requirements of exploring space.

Other educational aspects will involve the space station’s EarthKam, which is accessible via the World Wide Web, and communications between mission participants and amateur-radio users on Earth.

Some activities have taken place in advance of the mission, such as a pennant-design challenge for students. The winning pennant is to be unfurled in space.

Similar activities have been conducted during previous shuttle missions and from the space station. But NASA officials said Ms. Morgan, in her role as a crew member, adds a new dimension.

She shows “what it takes to be a scientist, mathematician, and engineer,” said Ms. Winterton. And, she said, Ms. Morgan’s operation of the robotic arm “is an opportunity for young students to see that high-tech has practical application.”

Cost Questioned

Several teachers cheered the mission’s educational agenda. “I would use [the plant-growth project] in my biology classroom, because you can reflect on what are the things seeds require in order to germinate,” said Pat L. Waller, a retired high school science teacher who is the president of the board of the National Association of Biology Teachers, based in Reston, Va.

But not everyone was so upbeat.

“This will be a great educational opportunity for children—if used as an object lesson for rational spending of taxpayer funds,” said Gregg Easterbrook, an author who has written about NASA. He said NASA spends “somewhere around $12,000 per pound [for cargo] delivered to orbit” on the shuttle, assuming it is filled to its capacity, and a recent cost estimate of getting cargo to the moon is more than twice that amount.

“So, kids, at $26,000 per bottle of Dasani water, does our moon-base proposal make economic sense?” said Mr. Easterbrook, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington.

Ground-based educational programs are more realistic ways to encourage students to pursue STEM studies and careers, he said.

Ms. Morgan, in the interview last week, said that her goal was not to force-feed students but to awaken their own interests. “It’s really about what kids and teachers do,” not NASA, she said. “The best learning starts with curiosity.”

Vol. 26, Issue 43, Pages 1,16

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