Thursday, July 29, 2010

NASA Ames Helps Students Experience the Thrill of Learning Science and Math

We all remember a moment in which a teacher or mentor made a difference in our lives. It could be a nod of encouragement, a helping hand, a lesson that inspired wonder or discovery, and ultimately may have given purpose and value to our lives.

These moments of awareness are what educators and mentors at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. hoped to inspire in our new generation on July 26, 2010, when it celebrated scientific discovery and technological innovation as part of its Summer of Innovation initiative. “Exploration Day” featured out-of-this-world missions and technology programs that brought students to NASA, so that they might experience a sense of awe and excitement while learning about NASA and its missions at the same time.

“Our research community has done a tremendous job developing new and creative ways to engage young people in their fields,” said S. Pete Worden, director at NASA Ames. “They have been doing their part to speak at schools, to create hands-on learning opportunities as mentors, and to help spark that same curiosity in students which perhaps led them to pursue a career in science and engineering.”

NASA Ames organized a day filled with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education hands-on activities and events, including a visit from the Traveling Space Museum (TSM), the “grand opening” of the renovated Ames Exploration Encounter (AEE), an opportunity to operate the rovers on a simulated lunar regolith and a student poster session of more than 100 students.

TSM brought to Ames numerous hands-on activities, one of which was “moon boots.” Who wouldn’t want to simulate Neil Armstrong’s zero-gravity walk on the moon? By strapping on a pair of “moon boots,” young students walked with enough bounce to simulate a feeling of zero-gravity, or a less firm terrain. The boots also were large enough to leave behind a giant footprint.

Another activity included an authentic BD-5J micro jet with operating controls similar to a hang glider. Young, novice pilots waited patiently to fly the small, single-seated aircraft, which demonstrated rudder movement when they pumped the foot pedals.

At a space shuttle exhibit, students learned to give the module operator a “thumbs up” to start the engine, and they were invited to “have a seat” on the space shuttle waste containment system (space toilet) to experience what it’s like to live and work in space. The sudden suction of air caused one boy to exclaim, “Wow! It’s breezy.”

The Ames Exploration Encounter always is a popular student science facility that provides hands-on activities exploring physics, flight, space science and Earth science. It was completely renovated just in time for the Summer of Innovation celebration.

AEE’s renovation included even more STEM education hands-on activities for middle school students. To help children learn math, AEE invested in 12 computer stations to challenge students’ math skills while landing a large aircraft in a variety of conditions. The NASA-developed, computer learning program is called “Smart Skies,” which enables students to explore and resolve distance-rate-time problems in realistic air traffic control problems using decision-making and proportional reasoning skills.

Other new AEE interactive modules include a 2012 NASA mission, called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), a lunar lander, and an International Space Station mock-up, remote operations of a rover on simulated regolith and other activities as well.

“I couldn’t have imagined a better opening for our new AEE facility. During the day, we had more than 800 excited and enthusiastic guests,” said Brenden Sanborn, education specialist and AEE manager. “I am hard-pressed to tell who enjoyed it more, the children or the adults.”

The celebration also included a student poster session, which illustrated and explained the accomplishments of the undergraduate interns and graduate fellows who worked at Ames. Students also used their posters as part of a presentation to fellow students and NASA mentors.

“The Ames Education Office was proud to show all the hard work performed by our undergraduate interns and graduate fellows. During their time here, they contributed to NASA missions and status,” said Brenda Collins, Higher Education program manager at NASA Ames. ”We can look forward to welcoming these bright young minds into the future workforce.”

Ames’ Exploration Day was about providing positive experiences in science and mathematics, and instilling in young people a love of learning and a sense of possibility in their own lives. As children moved from one event to the other, many of them were heard to say: “Thanks for the ride. It was fun!”

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