As a child, you may have seen TV commercials for space camp, a weeklong, out-of-this-world experience for fourth- through sixth-graders. While most grownups never have the opportunity to live out their wildest astronaut fantasies, students at two Texas schools are getting the chance to make those ambitions a reality. Even better, their adventures last much longer: Pupils have up to three years to explore the life of an astronaut and step into the shoes of a NASA worker - without ever having to leave their school campus.
The NASA Explorer Schools (NES) program began in 2003, annually fostering partnerships with schools nationwide. The program works to support and enhance curriculum in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and geography (STEM-G) fields. The NES program caters to students in grades four through nine with an emphasis on diverse and underprivileged populations. Schools receive a monetary grant, content-specific activities, an impressive array of NASA resources and priceless access: the chance to talk face-to-face with NASA personnel.
This year, two Texas schools - Dr. Hesiquio Rodriguez Elementary in Harlingen and Dunbar Middle School Math and Science Academy in Lubbock - were selected for the curriculum.
Opportunities Within Reach
The program provides low-income children with an opportunity most public schools only dream of, said Malli Travis, a teacher in Dunbar's engineering and science department. "We can schedule for aerospace education specialists to come to the school and help teachers with lessons in the classroom," she said. "We can schedule distance-learning opportunities using video-conferencing equipment for our students to talk to astronauts, engineers or other scientists at NASA.
"Our teachers will have the opportunity to attend conferences and other professional development workshops. We will be able to apply for learning opportunities such as the Reduced Gravity Flight [training environment]. We will have the monetary grant to purchase technology for the classrooms."
The grant is a wonderful opportunity in itself, according to Joan Sanders, NASA's designated NES coordinator. "Schools in the project are eligible to receive up to $17,500 from NASA (pending budget approval) over the three years to support the purchase and integration of technology tools that support student engagement in science and mathematics," she said.
For Dunbar Middle School, the grant money won't go to waste. "This year, we will spend the grant money on video-conferencing equipment," said Travis. "We will then look into spending the remainder of the grant on other technology such as graphing calculators for the algebra classes, the new LEGO Mindstorms NXT sets for robotics, or DVDs and projectors for teachers to use in classrooms, and any other technology items that will help promote critical thinking and higher-level learning."
Before any spending takes place, however, the schools and NASA must have project goals aligned to help students achieve as much as possible. The NES program has a regimented set of goals NASA hopes to see come to fruition through chosen schools, Sanders said. These include increasing students' interest and participation in the STEM-G fields, as well as broadening their knowledge regarding future careers in those disciplines. Sanders said increasing students' ability to apply STEM-G topics in meaningful ways and strengthening active participation and professional growth of educators are important as well.
For NASA, one of the program's goals is to foster family involvement in children's learning, which at times can prove difficult in a traditional school for low-income families struggling to make ends meet.
"NES brings people together around the collective interest of teaching students skills needed to succeed in the future," said Sanders. "NES provides strategies, materials and resources for families to support their children's science and mathematics education. NES develops a trained network of local family coordinators who work with NASA education experts to implement local family events."
Getting in the Program
Due to budget cuts, the usual 50-school selection was slashed in half, giving only 25 educational institutions the chance to participate in a competitive program that is in demand throughout the country.
Travis said Dunbar is one of only two Texas schools to be chosen for the program this year. "In fact, we are the only two schools chosen this year from the Johnson Space Center region, which covers eight states."
Johnson Space Center in Houston, along with every other NASA center, chooses candidates each year. The application process involves a grant proposal and often the formation of a faculty-run NES team to get the proposal done in time. As was the case with Dunbar, many schools attend workshops and seminars well in advance to improve their school's chances of being selected. "Two of our science teachers attended another NASA program several summers ago called Middle School Aerospace Scholars," said Travis. "They were presented with the information at that time. They returned to school excited about the opportunity."
The grant proposal must include information such as demographics and goals for the school - from academics to steps designed to improve family and community involvement. After the grant proposal is written, school candidates are narrowed down and chosen for a teleconference with NASA's decision committee. "Unfortunately the first time we applied, we were not chosen," said Travis. "'Failure is not an option' was our school motto, and we reformed the team last year and hit the drawing board again. We rewrote and rewrote our answers for the application. We reapplied when the window was open again. We again were called for a teleconference and underwent the interview process. This time we were chosen."
After a school is selected for NES, the planning and training continues. "An initial needs assessment collects information about areas of concern for the NASA Explorer School to determine program direction for the first summer workshop and follow-on support," said NASA's Sanders. "Educators and a school administrator, who are NES team members, attend an all-expenses-paid, one-week professional development workshop at one of the 10 NASA field centers."
This orientation is only the beginning when it comes to the training and preparation that chosen schools receive to make the most of their three years in the NES program.
Dunbar is known as a math and science academy and is the only middle school in the district offering a powerful scientific focus. Through the NES program, Dunbar hopes to get students and parents invested in its science curriculum.
"NES expands horizons - opening young minds to the possibilities of what the future holds," said Sanders. "NES strives to make the resources, experiences and tools necessary for effective science and mathematics education available to schools nationwide. The NES project links educators and students to resources and facilities that are normally beyond reach in the public school system.
"This direct contact plays an integral part in impacting individual students and entire school communities," Sanders said. "NES connects NASA to communities at a personal level that allows students, teachers, parents, administrators and the local community to experience and interact with NASA outside the newspaper headlines."
Tamara Warta is a former staff writer for Texas Technology magazine.