Like NASA engineers, students in Marilyn Wall’s fourth-grade class construct their own Mission to Mars project.
My school, John Wayland Elementary, population 620, is located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a conservative agricultural area. Shopping is still done in small country stores. The busy street in each town is named Main, and is crisscrossed by county dirt roads. Mennonite horses and buggies pass our school each day.
Living in such an area, my students often think of their futures in limited terms -- working on farms or in poultry houses, driving a truck, or working in a small family-owned business. Stars, planets, and astronomy are topics not usually discussed at the dinner table, certainly not as leading to possible career choices. That is, not until my students and I connected with NASA.
The students designed, built, and tested their own Mars rover.Credit: Marilyn Wall
Using the Tools of Scientists
I used to be uncomfortable with science, focusing instead on reading, writing, and math. But about five years ago, I happened to attend a technology conference, where teachers described their students' experiences with science through the Internet, and I clicked onto my first home page -- NASA's K-12 Quest Initiative. I heard about students going on a virtual flight aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. And I learned about an upcoming project called "Live From the Stratosphere."
The first "Live From the Stratosphere" telecast included an invitation for students to participate via the Internet in a global star count, and demonstrated how to turn a simple paper towel tube into a "star count" data instrument. Back at school, my students and I followed the directions, made our star counters, and began practicing. The students felt so important using the star counters and protractors. These were the tools of "real scientists"!
Students also wrote a successful computer program that directs the rover to navigate the student-created Mars terrain.Credit: Marilyn Wall
Seeing New Possibilities
On the night of our star count, students took their parents outside and instructed them on how to gather star data for NASA. The next morning I listened to students eagerly comparing their data, not only with each other but with other collaborating schools online. I knew I had a room full of successful learners. My students felt like real research scientists as they entered data on a star census map. They had learned to collect, analyze, and share information. I will always remember this activity because it was the turning point for me -- the first time I became confident in my own ability to conduct scientific investigations.
As we continued to explore more space projects, parents became curious. So, when NASA scheduled a special overnight observing session for students to link through live video and Internet connections with the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, we jumped on the opportunity to invite parents for a "star party."
When the night arrived and my students came with parents and guests, I saw such a transformation. Fourth-graders took on the role of teachers, escorting adults around our room, explaining their infrared light experiments, demonstrating principles of flight with model planes, and showing their star census data. My students then logged on and found themselves face-to-face with a NASA astronomer. Parents were absolutely amazed to watch their children proudly exchange messages with an astronomer at work.
Students take on the role of teachers when parents visit school.Credit: Marilyn Wall
I have a last story to share. One student, whom I will call Josh, was a nine-year-old boy, a boy forgotten, with little support from home. He came in each day with an unwashed face, rumpled hair, jeans well worn, and duct tape around his shoe to keep it from falling apart. Josh was reading below grade level, and regularly failed to do homework. He needed to wear glasses but absolutely refused to do so.
Slowly, through the course of our projects, Josh began to change. He became eager to work on the computer. Homework assignments started coming in, and Josh began reading "space" books. The night of our star party, I thought Josh would not be able to attend because his mother worked the night shift. But there he was, wearing his glasses, with his mom as his guest! During the telecast, Josh stood beside me and said, "Look at him," and he pointed to a NASA astronomer. Josh pointed again and said, "He wears glasses -- just like me."
The Mission to Mars project nears completion.Credit: Marilyn Wall
Later that evening, April Whitt, one of the scientists aboard Kuiper, e-mailed my students about how school had not been easy for her, but determination to see "tough things" through got her where she is. Josh came over to me and said, "I'm going to work hard like her." All I could do was hug him and say, "Thank you, NASA scientists!"
For my students in the Shenandoah Valley, technology has become the equalizer, bridging the gap between culturally advantaged urban students and culturally disadvantaged rural students. Though many of my students have never traveled outside our county's borders, never walked through a museum's doors, never looked through a telescope, never felt the ocean waves washing over their feet, never even experienced the moving steps of an escalator or the swaying motion of a train, they have counted stars, shared data with national scientists, participated in live NASA shuttle missions, and perhaps begun to see possibilities for themselves beyond our small part of this fascinating time and space.