S.C. District Helps Students Explore the Final Frontier

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

CHARLESTON, S.C.--A miniature "rain forest'' is taking shape in a plastic enclosure wedged between the chalkboard and the sink in Ellen Vaughn's classroom here at Memminger Elementary School.

A class project undertaken by Ms. Vaughn's students, all of whom have learning disabilities, the mock rain forest is a textbook example of hands-on science instruction. Through it, the students grow their own plants as they study the intricate ecosystems that cover Earth's equatorial zones.

Last month, however, Ms. Vaughn was able to draw on a much more dramatic prop to illustrate the damage that is being done to some tropical jungles by human intervention.

After a brief discussion of the adverse effects of human activity in the Amazon Basin, she took down from a bulletin board two 4-by-6-inch photographs of the region taken from space, one of which shows the increased sedimentation over time of the streams that lace the rain forest.

The most recent photograph was taken by a special package of cameras--designed specifically for the Charleston County school district--that flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour this summer.

The children, Ms. Vaughn says, seem impressed by the photographs and to understand that they represent a view of the rain forest from space, even if they are slightly confused about their origin.

"Some of the children do understand,'' she says, although "a couple of them still think that I was up in space taking the photos.''

Across town, meanwhile, James R. Frysinger's advanced-placement-physics students at the district's Academic Magnet High School, are eagerly awaiting their chance to work with some superconductive materials that also circled Earth in Endeavour's cargo bay.

Early next month, they will begin conducting their own experiments to determine if exposure to the penetrating cold and hazardous radiation of space had any effect on the materials' ability to carry an electrical charge.

The students "felt the radiation would be a big danger,'' Mr. Frysinger says. "They think it might no longer be a superconductor.''

While the two classroom exercises seem worlds apart in their degree of complexity, both are linked by a common thread: They employ data and photographs gathered by the CAN-DO Project, an unusual initiative undertaken by the district to place student experiments into space aboard a shuttle operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Originally scheduled to fly in the mid-1980's but postponed following the 1986 Challenger crash, the mission finally got off the ground this summer. The information gathered during the flight is expected to influence the district's curriculum at every level for years to come.

"As you can see,'' Carol Tempel, the district's coordinator of mathematics, sciences, and technology and the CAN-DO Project coordinator, tells a visitor, "this program is working for all kinds of kids.''

A 'Get Away Special'

A smaller experiment package and the photographic equipment originally were scheduled to fly in February 1986 as part of NASA's "Get Away Special,'' or GAS, program, under which several educational institutions developed small-scale experiments that could fit neatly into the shuttle's cargo bay.

"The payload was originally built to photograph Comet Halley,'' notes James Nicholson, the supervisor of the photography laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina here and NASA's principal investigator for the CAN-DO Project.

Designed in the early 80's by volunteers like Mr. Nicholson and assembled using such donated materials as scrap aluminum from a local shipbuilding concern; special, heavy-duty "space rated'' fuses from another company; and donated cameras from a third, the finished product impressed NASA professionals with its high quality and relatively low cost.

"When we went to Langley [Research Center in Hampton, Va.] to test the payload, the people [there] who actually build such things came over to see how we'd done,'' Mr. Nicholson says. "They said it would cost them more than $1 million to build essentially the same payload.''

The cost of the entire CAN-DO Project is estimated at less than $10,000.

Then, on Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger, carrying Christa McAuliffe, NASA's "Teacher In Space,'' exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all aboard and forcing the space agency into an extended period of introspection and rethinking of the shuttle's mission.

When the orbiters began flying again on Sept. 29, 1988, cargo manifests were filled with satellites that needed to be launched and experiments that had to be carried out. The GAS payloads, such as CAN-DO, received a lower priority for mission scheduling.

The teachers, researchers, and community volunteers involved with the CAN-DO program worked to keep the project alive for more than a decade as they waited for a shuttle assignment.

"Back before Challenger, there were a lot of education payloads in the mill, and a lot of them didn't survive the hiatus,'' Mr. Nicholson says. "But, by the time they actually started flying payloads again, our program was much stronger than it was before.''

Ms. Tempel explains that the delay gave students and teachers time to devise a larger array of experiments--the CAN-DO payload included objects as diverse as pine seeds and microscopic animals collected from Charleston tombstones--and to give district officials time to plan an effective curriculum for using the materials and photographs.

Even the project's name derives from the confidence maintained by project officials in the face of healthy skepticism from NASA scientists, who doubted the school district could successfully mount the mission.

Ms. Tempel and Mr. Nicholson, as well as other principals in the project, meanwhile, spearheaded efforts to keep the project on NASA's flight schedule and to insure that the mission profile would be compatible with their new curricular goals.

"We've made several trips to NASA to let them know we were still interested in flying,'' Ms. Tempel says. "We were assigned to one flight, but we refused because the shuttle bay wouldn't be facing Earth,'' frustrating efforts to photograph the planet.

A Lesson in Determination

During their long wait, CAN-DO officials were not idle, and their efforts have had some unforeseen payoffs for the district and for the nation's space program.

"We had kids very interested about the comet, and we didn't want to inadvertently teach the lesson that you just give up when tragedy strikes,'' Mr. Nicholson says. "We didn't just sit on our hands.''

So shortly after the Challenger disaster, CAN-DO officials learned of the Gerard P. Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a NASA aircraft based at the Ames Research Center near San Francisco, that carries out high-altitude astronomy missions.

With several last-minute modifications, the camera package was fitted aboard the observatory in time to photograph the flyby of Comet Halley.

"It's a much more hostile environment than the shuttle,'' Mr. Nicolson says of the observatory. "Nikon was very skeptical about what the cameras would do.''

But the photographs gathered were so scientifically valuable that three nationally known astronomers have since used them to discuss cometary phenomena during an international symposium on the comet.

Meanwhile, the CAN-DO team realized that the experience helped build teachers' science literacy and confidence. The team managed to persuade NASA to accept a limited number of teachers to fly aboard the observatory, a program that continues today.

At first, "that was a very alien idea to them,'' Mr. Nicholson says of NASA.

A Change in Focus

Based on the experience with the airborne observatory, meanwhile, the CAN-DO team began to revise its original plans for the shuttle mission. It occurred to them that astronomy plays a much smaller role in the precollegiate curriculum than does earth science and geography.

Thus GEOCAM, a project to photograph land-based environmental phenomena from space, became an integral part of the CAN-DO mission.

In June, with none of the fanfare associated with the Teacher In Space flight, the CAN-DO package of 256 student-designed experiments and the cameras flew on S.T.S.-57, the Endeavour's fourth orbital mission.

As a result, students and teachers with the CAN-DO team became the first educational group to operate a "mission-control room'' for a shuttle flight, from which they tracked Endeavour's orbit and provided the shuttle crew with instructions about which targets to photograph from space.

And because GEOCAM used a special film and the photo payload was so well-constructed, Mr. Nicholson says, the quality of the black-and-white pictures that will soon be available to students is expected to be better than the average pictures produced by shuttle astronauts.

The photographs also will become part of NASA's permanent archive of shuttle photographs housed at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.

"Some of our pictures actually have a scientific value,'' Mr. Nicholson says. "Secondly, we got the photos of Congo, which is rarely available on shuttle flights.''

But the project has not been without its glitches.

An original goal of the GEOCAM mission, for example, was to produce a comparative photographic record of sites originally photographed by NASA's Skylab in the mid-1970's.

Unfortunately, Ms. Tempel says, the shuttle's orbital path and poor weather over North America during the mission may make that goal more difficult to achieve. The photographic output is still being evaluated by NASA scientists.

In addition, the Endeavour launch, highlights of the mission, and images of students and teachers working in the mission-control room were to have been broadcast nationally by South Carolina Educational Television.

But, as the mission launch date slipped from May to early June, it became apparent that students would no longer be in class when the orbiter was in space.

"That was very disappointing,'' Ms. Tempel says.

Project managers have also learned from their experience that the success of the project in the classroom depends solely on the quality of the effort made to assist teachers in using the shuttle materials.

"At first, we got these fabulous pictures, but we didn't have the interface with teachers,'' Mr. Nicholson says. "That's the hard part. Taking pictures from space has been done before. Using them educationally in the classroom is very hard.''

Tossing Out the 'Cookbook'

Teachers, for their part, say they hope to achieve a variety of curricular goals with the CAN-DO photographs and experiments.

Mr. Frysinger and some of his colleagues note that many of the experiments will not necessarily be carried out by the students who designed them.

Nevertheless, he says, that experience will give students an insight into how the scientific process actually works.

"They see that experiments carry on from one student to another, just as, in the real world, they carry on from one scientist to another,'' he explains.

The long-term nature of the CAN-DO Project also runs counter to the prevailing "cookbook'' approach that most schools use, an approach that drastically distorts the nature of science, he contends.

"We tend to leave the impression that all science experiments can be done, start to finish, in 45 minutes,'' he notes. "I want them to get the idea that, sometimes, you get these frustrations in science.''

Mr. Frysinger, who helped perform the calculations for the photo tracking, says he also expects to use the high-quality shuttle photos in his classes.

"I'm looking at a photo of the Charleston area, and I can see a little country one-lane road and I see a footbridge crossing a river,'' he says. "For some of those things, we'll do some scaling calculations to figure out, for example, how high the shuttle was when the photo was taken.''

The use of CAN-DO materials, moreover, is expected to reach across the curriculum.

In Kathleen Rackley's classroom at Buist Academy, an academic-magnet middle school, for example, students recently were "ground truthing'' photos taken over the Caribbean during the CAN-DO mission to determine what geographic features could be identified and what inferences could be drawn from cloud patterns, land formations, and other features.

Ms. Rackley also encouraged students to compare the photos with geographic descriptions from Island of the Blue Dolphin, a novel they are reading in their language-arts classes.

And, as with any scientific endeavor, there is uncertainty about what kinds of outcomes to expect.

Connie Leverett, who teaches applied biology and chemistry at North Charleston High School and whose chemistry students suggested sending goldenrod seeds aboard the shuttle, is both and anxious and expectant about receiving the materials back.

"I'm looking forward to see how they work out,'' she says. "To be right honest, I've never planted goldenrod seeds, so I'm not really sure what to expect.''

Ms. Vaughn, who traveled to Houston to help develop photos, adds that joining the CAN-DO team helped her break out of the isolation that most teachers experience to work collegially with others in the project.

"Until I got involved with CAN-DO,'' she says, "I lived in my classroom.''

Vol. 13, Issue 07

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories