The case for space: An inspiration for learning in the stars
Thursday, March 16, 2017
The excitement surrounding the discovery of the Trappist-1 solar system announced by NASA on Feb. 22 speaks to the allure that space still holds for modern humans. Despite the exploration that's taken place in the last 80 years, the universe is full of mystery, as it was for ancient civilizations.
The significance of this intrigue struck home last week when, as part of the space project underway in my middle school classroom, one student excitedly relayed the Trappist-1 announcement to the group. The boy — a not particularly verbal, preintermediate English language learner — successfully conveyed all the key points of the news about the seven Earth-like planets that hold promise of supporting life.
His passion for the subject practically erased his shyness and hesitation, taking him to a new level of fluency. Noticing that I hadn't heard the news and my interest, he glowed with pride and eagerly shared more of his knowledge.
Space has a unique appeal. Mind-blowingly vast and distant, it allows the imagination to run wild with possibilities — yet our closest star is something we often take for granted despite our dependence on it for life. Space's infinite grandeur and importance parallels the limitless options for learning that it offers.
While the science connection is quite clear, astronomy and space exploration wield power in other subjects, especially lending themselves to projects at any level.
My daughter did a space project in her second-grade Spanish (first language) class, which not only incorporated math and science but also the arts and language. For their presentation, the children wrote and performed a humorous skit decked out as extraterrestrials and sang songs, including a tear-jerker about Laika the Russian space dog.
The project underway in my second-language classroom looks quite different. Students have elected specific areas to research individually.
Along with first-language investigation, as the case in the example I mention above, they're reading graded articles through Newsela. Their library of recently published articles covers various aspects of space along with set texts on NASA discoveries and Mars. My group comprises distinct reading and comprehension levels, so it's a joy to be able give students authentic articles they can really understand.
When it comes to STEM, the NASA is an incredible resource with online webinars and lesson plans for environmental and space-related science experiments. There are also quite a bit of cross-curricular offerings — for example, this in-depth lesson plan and activity where sixth through eighth graders compare survival on the moon with surviving in Jamestown in 1610.
Educators who prefer live exposure to experts in the field can attend the annual Space Exploration Educator Conference or apply to be selected as one of the 31 educators to collaborate in its Space Educator Expedition Crew program. The idea is that selected teachers take what they learn from expedition crews back to their community to promote STEM-based knowledge and lead students to careers in aeronautics, science and technology, according to a CBS article.
Science teachers who already have a project in the works may be interested in the Science Everywhere Innovative Challenge. Participants can garner public funding for their projects, regardless of whether they win the contest (deadline is March 24). While retired NASA astronaut Leland Melvin will be on the team of judges, the theme isn't necessarily limited to space; it can be anything that inspires students to continue their science discovery outside school.
Astronauts like Melvin, inspire awe in children making excellent role models to introduce in a science or general education class. Their stories teach the value of hard work and striving to achieve a lofty goal. There's a bit of diversity in their backgrounds so, with prior research, teachers can often help students locate an astronaut (or cosmonaut or taikonaut) they can identify with.
It's equally important to familiarize students with other space-related careers. The Women of NASA, a new Lego set whose manufacture was announced this month, features a chief astronomer and a computer scientist along with two famous astronauts. Before reaching the review stage the project, submitted by science writer Maia Weinstock, it had to garner 10,000 supporters on the Lego ideas site.
In her project proposal, she wrote, "Women have played critical roles throughout the history of the U.S. space program. Yet in many cases, their contributions are unknown or under-appreciated — especially as women have historically struggled to gain acceptance in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics."
Whether you mention Legos to hook your students or not, space exploration and technology are a great way to put a new spin on history. They provide opportunities to build global awareness.
Teachers may highlight contributions to our current knowledge of the universe by various nations, including interesting firsts and alliances between countries that may get overlooked in a more conflict or war-oriented view of world history. A comprehensive timeline and the history of the Russian space program are among the articles for kids found on the U.K. site, Spacekids.
Students can also be encouraged to think critically about the ethics related to what they're learning about space. Laika's story triggers strong opinions on animal rights for children and can be linked to Earth-bound issues such as caring for strays or one's own pets. Studying the effects of space on the body could open debates on whether humans should inhabit other planets or whether we belong in space.
On the lighter side, fun craft ideas such as making a comet on a stick, stretchy universe slime and a galaxy pinwheel are found on NASA's spaceplace menu — while edible offerings include sunspot cookies and El Niño pudding. The site, designed for kids, is readable in Spanish or English.
Space is a topic that can be approached in myriad ways and revisited again and again. In my opinion, it's as fascinating for teachers as students.
When I scored low on one of the quizzes on the BBC Space site, I thought, "Well, I've got a lot to learn, how exciting!" With so much yet to discover about space, we get to be explorers alongside our students.
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