"The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars…A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space." Arthur C. Clarke, First on the Moon, 1970
Every child has looked up at the twinkling stars on a clear night and wondered about the vastness above. The night sky captures a child's imagination and leads to profound thoughts and questions about our place in the world. The need to explore and discover is a common thread among humans, and the greatest unknowns lay in the night sky above us. Giving students a window into the beauty of space and teaching the journey of humankind's exploration of other worlds is a powerful tool to inspire and engage an interest in science and engineering.
Space Exploration Educators Conference
I recently attended the Space Exploration Educators Conference , where over 400 teachers from 40 different states and 7 countries came together at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas for a three-day space conference. This phenomenal conference brings together top educators who share a passion for space education. We toured astronaut training facilities, attended workshops on incorporating space into the classroom, and spoke with famous astronauts such as Alan Bean. The best part was interacting with other like-minded educators, and I left re-invigorated and firmly believing in the power of space education.
During one keynote presentation, a teacher described receiving a small grant to purchase a telescope for his classroom. He taught in a poor, rural community in Colorado, and he hoped this telescope would inspire his students. He decided to allow students to check it out each night with the promise of returning it the next morning. Other teachers mocked his decision and claimed it would be broken or stolen in a week. However, over the course of the year, he checked it out over 150 times to be returned in perfect condition each morning. Students cherished the opportunity to look at the stars each night, but one particular female student constantly begged to take home the telescope. She was never a top performing student, always arriving in dirty clothes and sitting in the back of his classroom. He wondered at her intense passion for the telescope, and it wasn't until years later that he learned of it's impact in her life. During that year in his class, she was facing a difficult home situation including an abusive father and extreme poverty. On especially tough nights, she would take the telescope and sit on of a hay stack looking at stars for hours. Space allowed her to escape her reality and dream bigger than what seemed possible.
"Space exploration is an investment in our future and maintains our sense of purpose about the future. We can create the world we want instead of the world we have." - Dr. John Horack
My Journey to Space Education
I decided to leave behind a great engineering career with the Navy to share my passion for engineering with undeserved kids. Because of my background in aerospace engineering, I decided to start an after school Space Club. However, I faced several obstacles including school administrators not believing students would be interested or benefit from the program. They pointed to their current STEM programs including an engineering elective, robotics club, and GT courses as well as the interference of tutoring and athletics in after school. I rebutted that my goal was not to reach just the GT students, but also the kid who hated math and never considered a career in science. I believed that with 88% of students being economically disadvantaged and having very few role models in science or engineering, Space Club was a needed program to reach those struggling students. It was a way for them to experience math and science in an informal, low-risk environment that would build their confidence towards STEM. After getting reluctant permission, I set out to recruit students. I asked to speak for 10 minutes during a day of science classes, and I told students about my personal experience in engineering and all the cool things they would learn and build in Space Club. I asked each class how many had met an engineer, and often nobody would raise their hand.
I had no idea what to expect the first day of Space Club back in October 2014. I arrived to the classroom portable, and I had to make my way through a throng of students. To my astonishment, I realized that this crowd was waiting for the first Space Club meeting! From athletes, band geeks, to GT students, over 60 students showed up that first day. Since then, I have been able to retain over 125 students at four campuses for a year-long Space Club. Students have launched rockets, visited NASA JSC, built protoype Mars colonies, and gathered data from a weather balloon in the stratosphere. Space Club has gained support from teachers, administrators, and the local community, as they realize the impact this program has in engaging and exciting young minds towards STEM. I have personally experienced the impacts of space education to inspire and engage students, especially those at-risk youth that need extra motivation. I started Space Club because of my educational background, but I did not expect the awesome impact launching a rocket and dreaming up a colony on Mars can have on a student's confidence and dreams for their future. You can see some of our impact in the video below that highlights the great work of my organization in working with at-risk youth including the impact of the Space Club programs.
Why Teach Space?
I passionately believe that space sciences should be a mandatory part of our education. All science standards include space sciences, but they are often skimmed over and barely given attention. Here are my top three reasons for teaching space.
- Ignites natural curiosity: All humans have a natural wonder about the world around us and how we fit in, and the study of the universe leads to the most profound scientific questions.
- Connects to STEM Careers: Space exploration is a great medium for discussing a wide range of STEM careers from biomedical engineers studying the effects of space on the human body to robotics engineers designing a Mars rover.
- New Age of Space Exploration: From landing on an asteroid to planned missions to Mars, space exploration is once again a hot topic. Like the Apollo missions inspired a whole generation of kids to become scientists and engineers, SpaceX and the Journey to Mars can inspire our youth today.
Space Education Resources
During the SEEC conference, I was exposed to amazing resources that can easily be incorporated into the classroom or an after school program to teach space sciences and exploration. NASA has built a gigantic database of lesson plans, videos, and resources for educators that can be found here. Below are my top five Space resources and activities for elementary and middle school.
- Mars Activities - Hands-on activities for K-8 including rover races, Alka-Seltzer rockets, and more that connect students with NASA's journey to Mars.
- Day in the Life: Videos and lessons showcasing daily living aboard the ISS.
- Rockets Educators Guide: An awesome collection of rocketry activities for K - 8.
- STEM on Station: Lessons and videos from the ISS to connect with your classroom.
- EarthKAM: Students can take pictures of earth from a digital camera on the ISS.
I hope you find these resources useful to incorporate space sciences into your classroom! You can also check out Vivify's space STEM resources:
- Space Lander Mission - Students work in teams to build a spacecraft lander and protect two marshmallow aliens during impact.
- Asteroid Math Bundle - Includes four space themed activities that incorporate ratios, geometry, and algebra. Students save the earth from an impeding asteroid collision, study past meteor events, determine the threat level of an asteroid, and design safe shelters.