Space Shuttle Flight Launches School Activities

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Schools across the country got a lift from the excitement surrounding the mission of the space shuttle Discovery and the return of Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, to space after 36 years.

Many schools tuned their televisions to the afternoon launch Oct. 29 to bring students the spectacle, in which Mr. Glenn, 77, made history again as the oldest person in space.

Sen. John Glenn
Sen. John Glenn

As the chief celebrity of the seven-member crew, Mr. Glenn and mission commander Curtis Brown also fielded questions from students in the Washington area and in the senator's home state of Ohio in a live audio interview. And teachers seeking to use the event in their classes could get plenty of ideas from NASA 's World Wide Web site,

But many enterprising teachers came up with their own ways to use the nine-day scientific mission to add punch to their lessons.

Maureen E. Good, a teacher at Apache Elementary School in Peoria, Ariz., used the flight as a booster for a writing project. Her 22 6th graders imagined themselves on the flight and kept a journal of daily events, both real and imagined.

"Each student was assigned a role as one of the astronauts that went up–and no, not everybody could be John Glenn," she said.

Facts from news reports were just the starting point, Ms. Good said. "I think they'll learn more about themselves and how to be creative thinkers, really exploring their imagination to see what they can come up with."

Another goal was for them to realize that space flight has difficulties and risks. "Some of my students look on television and say, 'Oh, they're up in space,'" Ms. Good said. "I explained to them, 'Maybe you woke up in middle of the night because something went wrong with the shuttle itself and you have to repair it.'"

But Ms. Good was wary of another potential reality, holding her breath as her class watched the launch until the shuttle seemed safely headed toward orbit. The last time most schools made such a fuss over a shuttle launch was in January 1986, when the Challenger exploded and killed teacher Christa McAuliffe and the six other crew members.

One-Millimeter Payload

A handful of schools had a direct stake in the mission. Vero Beach High School, in Florida, was one of eight schools with scientific experiments on board. Carol A. Haffield, the chairwoman of the science department, said the school was selected to use a tiny container, or well, on the shuttle that was donated by Instrumentation Technology Associates, a company in Exton, Pa.

Ms. Haffield, who teaches 63 students in an after-school research class, said the school held a contest last year for students to suggest ideas for experiments. The 10 best proposals, after being tweaked by the science teachers, were sent to the company, which selected the school's radish-seed project.

The well has space for only 125 microliters of solution--about 1½ drops. Into the well was placed a single yellow-brown radish seed, one millimeter long, with a drop of gibberlic acid, a natural hormone that strengthens plant stems.

The seed might absorb the chemical differently in zero gravity, Ms. Haffield said. "We're hoping to find that it might be more evenly distributed through the plant."

After the landing, scheduled for last Saturday, the seed will be planted in sterile soil, and students will compare the result with plants from radish seeds treated with gibberlic acid on Earth. Their findings could help residents of the future International Space Station grow larger plants in less space.

Other departments at Vero Beach High were involved, too, illustrating what some educators call the cross-curricular potential of space flight.

"The journalism class wrote the press releases for the class project; art classes drew a schematic--a friendly little radish logo; the math kids are going to toy around with the statistics after we bring the seed back [and grow it]," Ms. Haffield said.

Close to Home

Donna Z. Frank, an earth science teacher, brought a group of 8th graders 25 miles from school to a Lockheed Martin Corp. manufacturing plant to watch the launch on television. The 1,000-student Slidell Junior High School, in New Orleans, has a partnership with the plant, which builds the space shuttles' reusable external fuel tanks.

Viewing the launch will help her students anticipate the space project they will do during the spring semester, Ms. Frank said.

Each year her students design a space vehicle or station according to a common theme. Last year's theme was a business facility; the year before, it was an interplanetary Club Med. Retired Lockheed Martin engineers coach the students on their projects and judge a design contest. Last year's prize was a trip to Cape Kennedy.

Ms. Frank said the shuttle launch also shows students that science is real: "What they're learning is something they all benefit from and use. At the junior high level you need to tie that in, to find a motivator, explain why do they have to learn this."

Such connections add to the inherent interest most young people have in space, said Michael A. Shanklin, the programs coordinator at the Aerospace Science Technology Education Center in Oklahoma City.

He said the center has seen a spike upward in phone calls from teachers, who can attend in-service sessions on using space as the setting for "experiential" learning.

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Page 3

Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as Space Shuttle Flight Launches School Activities
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