Teacher to Deliver Lessons in Space

By Andrew Trotter — July 11, 2007 5 min read
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This article was originally published in Education Week.

The crew of the space shuttle Endeavour, which is scheduled to begin an 11-day mission Aug. 7, will conduct a variety of educational activities, with a key role played by teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara R. Morgan, NASA announced yesterday.

The activities targeted to K-12 students are add-ons to the shuttle crew’s primary missions, which include attaching a huge truss segment to the orbiting International Space Station. Ms. Morgan, a former elementary school science teacher from Boise, Idaho, will operate the shuttle’s mechanical arm to transfer equipment from the shuttle to the space station, NASA officials said at a July 10 press briefing.

Though the officials portrayed Ms. Morgan as just one member of the crew, they were also aware that her past role as a teacher is sure to capture the public’s attention.

Ms. Morgan, as many educators remember, was the teacher selected in 1985 as the backup to teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, the social studies teacher who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its ascent on Jan. 28, 1986.

Ms. Morgan, now 55, subsequently went through the full astronaut-training program and qualified as a mission specialist.

How to Thrive Up There?

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

On the upcoming mission, which NASA calls STS-118, Ms. Morgan will help conduct three planned live “downlink” sessions, in which students will ask questions that they have prepared in advance, NASA officials said at the one-hour press briefing on the educational aspects of the mission. The briefing was held at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston, but reporters were also able to participate from a conference room at NASA’s headquarters in Washington.

Students will take part in the 20-minute downlink sessions 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. The sessions will be broadcast live on NASA Television.

The first downlink session, at the Boise center, will take place on the seventh day of the mission, or Aug. 14, if the shuttle launch takes place as planned on Aug. 7. 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.

Joyce Winterton, NASA’s assistant administrator for education, said the mission’s educational goals include improving NASA’s future capacity to conduct space missions and helping attract and retain students in the science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, disciplines.

Ms. Winterton said that Ms. Morgan, who was deeply involved in planning the educational activities for the mission, helped frame them within three “big questions”: How will people live and work in space? How will they stay healthy and physically fit in space? How will they grow food in space?

Seeding Interest in Space

To address the third question, on the challenge of growing food in space, the shuttle crew members 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 also connected to a school-based “engineering design challenge” that will be open to any teachers and students beginning this fall. It consists of having students design and build plant growth chambers that could withstand conditions on the surface of the moon. Teachers will be able to download free instructions for the activity.

Teachers will be able to request packets of basil seeds that were flown on STS-118, which NASA will distribute this fall along with basil seeds that were not flown, for comparison. Students will grow the seeds in their growth chambers.

The engineering design challenge was created with the help of the International Technology Education Association. The project is based on the group’s national standards for technology education, according to Shelli Meade, the research-projects director of the ITEA, which is based in Reston, Va.

The association has helped organize several professional-development sessions for teachers about the challenge prior to the mission.

Setting an Example

Another postmission unit that NASA is offering schools involves health and fitness lessons in which students can do 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 nutritional and physical fitness, and relate physical Earth-based needs to the requirements of exploring in space.

Additional educational aspects during the mission include the use of 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 education-related activities have taken place in advance of the mission, such as a pennant-design challenge for students. The winning pennant, by a student from Mount Laurel, N.J., is to be unfurled in space.

Similar activities have been conducted during previous shuttle missions. But NASA officials said Ms. Morgan, in her role as a crew member, will be perhaps the most powerful lesson for students on the flight.

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


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