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A Science Teacher Will Be at Next Week’s NASA Mission Launch

By Madeline Will — March 20, 2017 4 min read
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Debbie Reynolds is fascinated by space. And she wants her middle school students to be, too.

The veteran science and STEM teacher has tried to bring the textbook to life through simulations and experiments—and now, she’ll have a firsthand story watching a rocket be launched into space to share with her students.

Reynolds, who teaches in Pittsburgh, will be at the Orbital ATK mission launch this week in Florida. Orbital ATK, a NASA commercial cargo provider, will be targeting its seventh commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station on Monday. [Update 3/20, 5 pm EST: Since publishing, NASA moved the launch date from this Friday to next Monday, March 27.]

The spacecraft will carry more than 7,600 pounds of science research, crew supplies, and hardware to support science experiments at the station—including an advanced plant habitat for studying plant physiology and the growth of fresh food in space, and an antibody investigation that could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs for cancer treatment.

Reynolds was one of 50 people selected as part of the NASA Social program, which invites NASA followers to attend mission launches or get behind-the-scene opportunities. This mission launch will be livestreamed through NASA Television and its website, and Reynolds told Education Week Teacher that she plans to capture her perspective through social media—possibly Facebook Live or live-tweeting—so her students can tune in and feel involved.

Reynolds was also one of 36 U.S. science teachers who were selected to attend the Space Educator Expedition Crew Program in Houston last month, where she took part in educational sessions led by NASA scientists, did hands-on activities to get ideas to bring back to the classroom, and learned about new technologies being used in space.

Reynolds also spoke to several astronauts, including Nancy Currie-Gregg, who has participated in four space shuttle missions. Currie-Gregg shared her background story with the teachers, which Reynolds relayed to her students in hopes of inspiring them.

“I said, look, her parents didn’t even graduate from high school, and she’s now an astronaut and has flown in multiple missions,” Reynolds said. “I’m trying to make it relevant for my students. You might be someone going up in space, you might be someone on the ground designing these things, you might be up there doing computer programming.”

At the conference, the teachers did a hands-on activity called “Ship the Chip” to simulate what engineers have to think about when they send cargo to space. The teachers had to package a Pringles chip in a way that it wouldn’t break in transit. Then, the teachers shipped their chip from Houston to their classroom.

Reynolds said her class was excited to open the chip, which wasn’t broken at all. Then, they had to work together to create their own shipping container for another Pringle, which is being shipped to a classroom in Canada.

“This is just a Pringles chip, but here’s what astronauts have to do every day,” Reynolds said. “I try to do hands-on with my students as much as possible—they need to be able to collaborate and problem-solve.”

That is also the goal behind the science simulator at her school. Harrison Middle School is one of seven schools across the country with a Dream Flight Adventures simulator, which the school received through a grant. Students are placed into “missions,” like being launched into space, going inside a volcano, or traveling under the ocean.

“People call it a Disney ride,” she said. “We try not to make it seem like a game, because we don’t want the kids to devalue the educational part of it.”

The students all have jobs on each mission during the simulator—"But all of the tasks are connected to each other. No one can be in a silo,” Reynolds said. “They have to work together for the ship to run.”

For teachers who want to take advantage of these opportunities for their own classroom, Reynolds’ first advice is to get on social media.

“That’s how I learned about all these [NASA] programs that I’m going to. I learn about free tools I’ve used in my classroom on social media,” she said. “I was blown away by what’s out there and what’s free for me to use in my classroom.”

Also, Reynolds recommends that teachers tap into their local NASA agency for educational materials, as well as Smithsonian museum websites.

Reynolds said her enthusiasm about space has rubbed off on her students, who are excited about their teacher getting to see a mission launch in person.

“At the beginning, they were like, why are you so excited about space?” Reynolds said, laughing. She told her students: “You don’t even know what’s all out there!”

Image of the NASA commercial cargo provider Orbital ATK courtesy of NASA/Tony Gray & Kevin O’Connell.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.