Mission: Math and Science
by Carl Hoffman
"We've got astronauts, guys," crackles a voice over John Handshoe's walkie-talkie.
"Copy that," says Handshoe, looking every bit the astronaut himself in a blue one-piece flight suit adorned with NASA patches. Striding past models of space shuttles and the international space station, past autographed portraits of space veterans in similar flight suits, past glossy posters of shuttles blasting skyward above clouds of orange flame, he throws open the door. "Cool!" yells one of the sixth-graders from Johns Creek School in Pikeville, Kentucky, pouring into the room. "Check it out!" says another.
"We're going to find the comet faster than anyone else!" shouts a pony-tailed girl to Handshoe.
"Are you ready to fly today?" asks Handshoe, a grinning, bright-eyed former high school chemistry and physics teacher. It's a silly question and Handshoe knows it; the kids aren't even all in the door yet, and they look like they've just won the jackpot. And in a sense, they have: they're spending a morning at the Challenger Learning Center (CLC) of Kentucky, where sixth-grade students from eastern Kentucky fly mock space shuttle missions and where math and science and communications and just about every other subject are wrapped in a package so appealing kids can't wait to tear it open.
"First I want to say a few words about comets," says Earlis Thornsberry, Handshoe's colleague. Comets: hardly a subject to rivet rambunctious sixth-graders. But not one of the kids yawns or chats or rolls her eyes. "Anyone know what kind of comet Hale-Bopp was?"
"Long period!" shouts a student.
"Right," says Handshoe, "but we're going to pursue comet Encke, which is different. How would you describe Encke?"
"Elliptical!" comes a shout.
"What's it made of?"
"Ammonia and rocks!"
The kids are as engaged as contestants on a game show.
Since the center's opening in March 1999, with help from an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant, some 5,500 sixth-graders have already "flown" missions into space. Working in teams in the shuttle's space station and on the ground in "mission control," the students attempt to rendezvous with a comet, a process that involves myriad skills, from the science and math necessary to find the comet, to teamwork and group communication. In essence, the missions are the dessert at the end of a healthy meal—the culmination of a six- to eight-week academic unit on space and earth science in students' classrooms at school.
"The CLC is really a tool for teachers," says Tom Cravens, the center's director. "We emphasize that the kids are only here for a short time, and it's a motivational tool to get students interested in space, science, and math. It's not an end in itself but a fun way to apply what they've learned in the classroom. We stress that it's the 'before and after' teaching that's really important." Schools pay $350 to $500 per mission (the center hopes to be self-sufficient within two years), and teachers feel it's money well spent. "There's a limit to what you can bring to students with books or videos," says Judy Lester, an official with the Pike County School System, "and this makes math and science come alive for them. We feel the CLC is some of the best money we've ever spent." "It brings in all the subjects, especially science and math," says science teacher James Coleman, "and they don't even realize they're doing something 'educational.' "
A Center for Space Science Education
The Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky is one of 34 sites across the country run with the help of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a nonprofit organization created as a memorial to the crew of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle mission by the crew's families, in cooperation with NASA. (The shuttle, which exploded soon after takeoff, carried teacher Christa McAuliffe.)
Until last year, all of the Challenger Learning Centers were based in urban and suburban locations. But in 1996, a retired high school teacher from Hazard named Alice Noble discovered the Challenger Learning Center concept while working as the director of aerospace education at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where a center is located. Hazard and rural eastern Kentucky should have a center too, Noble thought, and she took the idea to Hazard Mayor William Gorman and to officials at Hazard Community College. They agreed.
"Our schools lag behind in math and science," says Judy Mitchell, the dean of Resource and Community Development at Hazard Community College, "and we feel it's crucial to make math and science exciting for our students. And it was so attractive to us because it wasn't just a single experience, but a whole curriculum that opened the classroom up to the world." With the college acting as sponsor and fiscal agent, and with funds from ARC and local civic groups, the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky became the 34th site nationwide and the first in a rural area. "We hope," says Mitchell, "that it will have far-reaching effects." If the Johns Creek students' reactions are any indication, there seems little doubt that it will.
Long before their arrival at the center, the Johns Creek teachers completed a one-day workshop, and the math and science classes prepared for weeks. The students clearly have already studied comets, for example, and they've already "applied" for specific jobs on the mission: the navigation team will be responsible for finding the comet and for triangulating its position; the probe team will build and launch a probe that will pierce the tail of the comet; the medical team will run diagnostic tests on their fellow astronauts; the isolation team will use robotic devices to test the shuttle's solar array panels and air filters for radiation; the life support team will keep the astronauts alive; the remote team will calculate the density and mass of meteorite pieces; and the data and communications teams will compile critical data and coordinate the flow of communications between the teams and between mission control and the shuttle itself.
The Mission Takes Off
After their brief introduction, the students are split into two groups—mission control and space station—of eight teams each, and Thornsberry says: "The mission belongs to you. It's yours. If it's a success, you get the credit. If it's a failure, you get the blame." Then the shuttle astronauts enter a black hallway and, passing through a heavy metal hatchway, enter the shuttle itself—a dark, narrow room lined with chairs. A high-tech sound system vibrates the room as a film takes the students visually through a genuine shuttle launch from within the shuttle's cockpit. At liftoff the engines roar. The room shakes slightly. The shuttle hurtles into space, its booster engines separating as it climbs. In the quiet blackness of space a moment later, the shuttle docks with a space station, and the astronauts pass into it through an airlock.
"This is SO cool!"
The windowless, circular room seems like, well, a space station. The theme from Star Wars plays softly in the background. In the "clean room," members of the probe team, in white lab coats, start building the probe. The life support team starts monitoring the humidity and oxygen of the station. Kids on the remote team, their arms and hands in sleeves penetrating a sealed chamber, investigate the density of meteorite samples. Following instructions printed on "task cards," they relay the information they collect to the communications team, which relays that information to mission control, a separate room with three banks of monitors and computers. Taking the information gleaned from the space station astronauts, the mission control teams process the data and navigate toward the comet.
Like a genuine mission, it's an intricate symphony of individual tasks and parts coming together, in which teamwork and clear communication are crucial. The students are riveted to their tasks as messages and data pour back and forth. "Shuttle control, this is mission control," comes a sixth-grade voice, after the life support team has reported the space station's humidity to mission control. "Your humidity is too low; stand by while we research the problem."
Suddenly a red light starts blinking and a siren wails. "We have an emergency; low humidity, low humidity!" warns a computer-synthesized voice. Kids scurry anxiously in both rooms as they try to diagnose and fix the problem.
Morgan Moore, a member of the life support team, concentrates intently as he pours water into a graduated cylinder to help solve the problem. His math teacher, Corbie Kendrick, takes the opportunity to ask him: "Now do you know what math is for?"
"I never knew!" he says. By the time their two and a half hours are up, Moore and the other students have rotated between space station and mission control, conquered an oxygen emergency that sent them into a near-panic, and successfully probed their comet to complete their mission.
"It was so cool," says student Kyle Smith, blinking in the bright sunshine afterward. "I thought it would be weird or maybe boring, but you had the feeling of space and being up there. And it made me really think about math and science when we had to figure out how much air they had left."
"I couldn't go to sleep last night, I was so excited," says Aaron Collins.
Teachers are equally enthusiastic. "We've been talking about math careers, and I just don't think they could even conceive of a career in math," says Kendrick. "But today I think they saw it." Although a new facility is being built for the center under the aegis of Hazard Community College, both Mitchell and Cravens emphasize that the center is merely the most visible and glamorous part of something much deeper: a wholesale reinvigoration of teachers and the way they teach science and math in eastern Kentucky. Already 150 teachers have participated in daylong workshops at the center. And NASA is proving a willing and exciting partner, providing additional resources and teacher training.
Vivian Carter, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science at Roy G. Eversole Middle School in Hazard, fell so in love with the program that she ended up being chosen for a two-week training session at NASA. At the session, she met scientists responsible for shuttle missions and learned new hands-on activities for her students. And she, in turn, has been sharing information and ideas with her colleagues.
"I think the Challenger Learning Center is one of the most important educational opportunities of my students' lives," Carter says. "It's like a fantasy come true for them. Mission control, the airlock, the oxygen emergency; the kids are playing and having fun and learning at the same time. When they hear about NASA and space, it's real to them now, and they want to learn about it. Now, at last, we're on the cutting edge."
Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.