Groups Bringing Space Down to Earth for Students

August 1, 2001       Matthew Sinclair      

“In space there is no 9-1-1,” was the theme of one track of a design competition for grade-school students interested in space. But to former-United States senator and astronaut John Glenn, the nation’s children are in need of life support when it comes to math and science education.

Glenn co-chaired the recent fifth annual Space Day, which Lockheed Martin (LM) helped launch, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. With the Wright Flyer hanging nearly over his head and old commercial airplanes hanging nearby, Glenn talked about the importance of imagination but cautioned that America’s future success depends on the very real strengthening of math and science education.

Glenn called on America’s school boards to take responsibility for the need and to take advantage of a developing network of grassroots efforts spurred by corporate partnerships with space- and education-related nonprofits. “Our local people aren’t responsible enough to make sure it happens,” he said later in an NPT interview. “School boards cannot just sit there and say we’re not going to be involved.”

Approximately 70 organizations including the Challenger Centers for Space Science Education, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, the 4-H Council, and local and national education groups came together, nearly 40 years to the day Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space.

After the first Space Day in 1997, several groups formed an educational advisory committee, including the National Science Teachers Association, the National Council of Teachers of Math, the National Science Foundation, the International Tech Education Association, as well as LM and NASA. The organizations have been developing curricula that take advantage of children’s imaginations as much as their math and science aptitudes.

Buzz Bartlett, LM’s director of corporate affairs, said a Space Day Foundation is in the process of being created, which would help to fund future efforts. “We recognize the enormous potential of Space Day,” he said, noting hopes that it will become as well known as Earth Day. “(More effort is needed) if it’s really going to grow and reach that portion of the population that doesn’t go into math and science.”

Bartlett noted, however, that the corporation is looking to take a “step back so others can step forward.”

Hugh Burns, a spokesperson for LM, tried to downplay the $1 million the aerospace corporation pays for Space Day. “We don’t use it as advertising,” he said. “That’s the cost of getting it done.”

Burns said programs, such as digitized signatures on a shuttle mission, can serve as a spark. “This is the way to get kids excited in space, but (who) think it’s more about math, science and technology.”

The “Students Signatures in Space” program with NASA allows 10 schools in each state and schools in nine other countries that are selected to have the students’ names flown on a shuttle mission. The poster they sign is digitized and combined with other posters. When the mission is over, the school receives its poster back. In the meantime, the school continues to receive materials from NASA and classroom activities. “This has usually been the impetus to do something (the next year in the Space Day program.),” said Burns explaining some of the grassroots level efforts at spurring interest. “What we do is enough of the support to get things going.”

At the cyberspace level was a live, two-hour Webcast from the museum, featuring an interview with Glenn, the astronauts living in the ISS, NASA chief scientist Kathryn Clark of the Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS), and descriptions of the Space Day design challenges by the participants. The Webcast is actually shorter than the eight hours in their initial effort, due to better production and planning.

The Challenger Centers are at the heart of the Space Day events. With 42 centers around the country and in Canada and Great Britain, the organization created by family members of those killed in the 1986 Challenger explosion attracts roughly 10,000 children and 300 teachers to its educational programs per year. This year 4,000 teams of students participated in the three competitions to develop products for the International Space Station. There was a design challenge to handle emergencies; a “cosmic cuisine” competition for nutritious food astronauts eat in zero gravity; “stretch and fetch” in zero G; and a physical fitness competition.

Hammonton, N.J., teacher Janet Holloway’s students Joe Alessi, David Parkhurst, and Matt Rizzotte received the award for best presentation for their emergency response plan for electrical and water leaks on the space station. Rizzotte handled communication with other students via ePALS Classroom Exchange, an electronic school communications network for Space Day participants brought about by the corporate involvement. He said the biggest challenge was “figuring out what solutions worked. Some (solutions) on earth wouldn’t (work in space.)

Holloway said the students “were constantly perfecting things,” together. By the time they were three-quarters through the project, “they really knew what they were doing.”

Sparking children’s imagination is what makes the program work. Harold Wahlberg, vice president for marketing and network development at the Challenger Center’s national headquarters in Alexandria, said, “We don’t teach space. We use space as the motivator.”

Jim Sando is a fifth-grade science teacher at Shady Grove Elementary School in Wissahickon, Pa., outside Philadelphia. This was his first year involved in Space Day programs, and he was impressed. “You don’t find that stuff in a science textbook,” he said of the NASA materials his students received.

Space Day participants heard shuttle astronaut Wendy Lawrence and author Sir Arthur C. Clarke (in a taped statement) tell the children the first person to walk on Mars could be among them.

Lawrence, a veteran of three shuttle missions, told them becoming an astronaut took years of hard work and overcoming many ups and downs. “It took (me) 25 years,” she said. “All those years of hard work have been worth it. … I challenge you to be the generation that gets us back to the Moon, this time to live. And then on to Mars.”

Dan Freilich, the 17-year-old co-host of the Space Day Webcast, said what kids his age and younger come away with “is that space is interesting and something they’ve got to think about. … Even if it’s one hour or two hours every year, it’s making them think about space.”