‘Face time’ with NASA brings science to life

The fourth rock from the sun is a great place to take students –even if it’s a virtual field trip.

Mars Day turned out to be quite an event last week. With a little help from a remarkable piece of engineering, called a Robonaut to talk about. More about this in a moment.

The Mars event came about after some serendipitous discussions with NASA. I asked them out of the blue if we could have someone from the Space Station call in to my class. (Yes, I entertain big, hairy audacious goals!) I thought the folks with more Ph.ds than you could shake a stick at would never get back to me, but within a few days, someone did. Cassie Bowman must be accustomed to such calls, and quickly began to connect the dots.

Turns out the Mars Space Flight Facility, at Arizona State University, has researchers working on the Curiosity Rover. Cool stuff involving software that lets that SUV-sized robot communicate with earthlings.

A robot was great point of focus.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, ASU loaned me the wheel of the elder rover, Opportunity, which we displayed in a bed of red rocks, in the library. In my classes, sprinkled with space science and robotics, there’s nothing like a titanium wheel to get children to ask questions.

As for the day itself, we planned it around a series of hands-on sessions with three groups of students – fourth, fifth and sixth graders. Sheri Klug-Boonstra who set up the activity asked students to identify a mystery planet from boxes of artifacts brought back from a hypothetical team of explorers. They analyzed rocks, slivers of fur, shards of metal-like substances, and twigs. Teams were asked to predict what kind of planet this was, and what kind of life it must have sustained. Results were collected on Post-It notes and reviewed.

If this seemed like a great way to see science as a series of discoveries, it was book-ended by two other events:

  • A poster competition that we launched ten days ahead.
  • A video-conference with Kody Ensley.

Never heard of Kody? He’s a young Native American who was recently hired by NASA. Kody works on the Robonaut project at the Johnson Space Center, designing a humanoid robot that can work side-by-side with astronauts.

Something magical happens when students who tend to see a planet, and the space station, as way out of their reach, connect with a “real” scientist, in the middle of this fascinating science. They asked him about why he took to science, and what planet he would send the next robot to, if he had a chance.

We used FaceTime, an iPad app that lived up to its name, making the distance between Houston, Texas, and Scottsdale, Arizona disappear. It could have easily been a downlink from the space station.

This story, cross-posted from my education blog, Voices On!

2 thoughts on “‘Face time’ with NASA brings science to life

  1. Pingback: Mars Day –and a chance to talk to an astronaut! | Hoi Polloi Report

  2. Pingback: Mars Day –and a chance to talk to an astronaut! | Voices On!

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