Bringing space exploration down to Earth

As humankind marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and launches unmanned Mars missions, school districts continue to blaze trails in teaching space exploration.
By: | Issue: March, 2019
February 14, 2019
spaceReaching for the stars—In addition to exploring the solar system, students at the Space Foundation’s Discovery Center in Colorado Springs are encouraged to explore STEM-related careers in the aerospace industry.

Today’s school-age earthlings may become the adults who take the first steps on another planet. As humankind marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and launches unmanned Mars missions, school districts continue to blaze trails in teaching space exploration.

For example, Brevard Public Schools in Florida launched a Destination Mars program for sixth-graders. It features activities such as designing survival structures for humans and programming rovers to explore the red planet. Ultimately, the program encourages students to consider STEM-related subjects and careers.

Space exploration-related curriculum should include interactive, interdisciplinary projects and lessons that align with Next Generation Science Standards, says David Lockett, an aerospace and engineering instructor at Bok Academy in Florida, and chairman of the National Science Teachers Association Aerospace Programs Advisory Board.

“And my students always say to me, ‘Make sure it’s awesome!’” says Lockett. “So as an educator, the question becomes how can you deliver a lesson so that students can fully explore the subject, and then have the resources to back up what’s being learned.”

Immersive technology creates learning opportunities

NASA provides ample online resources for educators seeking space-based curricula, including lesson plans and educator guides. For example, Lockett’s students recently built a rover based on open-source plans made available by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Space exploration increasingly fuels interest in subjects such as robotics and coding, says Lisa Brown, associate professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas and a former aerospace education research specialist at NASA.

“Space is not an addition to the curriculum, but an enhancement to it,” says Brown. “For example, there’s a whole curriculum at NASA called Space Math, written by a mathematician at NASA, that says, ‘Here’s how we use a quadratic formula in space.’ It involves real-world, relevant examples.”

Augmented and virtual reality technologies provide great opportunities for compelling, cutting-edge lessons, says Bryan DeBates, vice president of education for the Space Foundation.

“A lot of times, if it’s not high-tech, it’s not going to grab the student’s attention,” says DeBates. With AR, students can experience what it is like to stand on the surface of Mars. These immersive experiences create deeper connections to the subject matter.

Although budgets may make buying specifically related edtech and resources challenging, many schools already have access to smartphones, tablets and other devices that run AR platforms, says DeBates.

Growing the space workforce

Educators can seek local help in bolstering space education.

Bok Academy is located near Florida’s Space Coast, which includes NASA and space-related corporations such as Lockheed Martin. This creates opportunities for partnerships that promote science and engineering practices, and that support industry career paths, says Lockett.

“For example, students can see a practice in the field, and then bring it back to the classroom,” Lockett says. “They can develop design solutions and connect it to natural science or Earth and the solar system.”

To promote related career paths, teachers should not just talk about astronauts, says DeBates. The industry not only needs engineers and astrophysicists, but also welders, electricians, finance experts, artists, nutritionists and computer programmers.

“It’s important students understand that if you love space, there’s a job for you,’” says DeBates. “Sending that message will get students into that STEM pipeline and start growing that workforce.”