FSU hosts annual Challenger Center Conference

[Cesareo Contreras]

By Alexandra Gomes


By Cesareo Contreras

Editorial Staff

FSU’s Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center hosted this year’s Challenger Center Conference from Aug. 7-11, during which educators, administrators and representatives from 44 McAuliffe Centers across the country discussed how to integrate space exploration into STEM education.

The fourth and final day of the conference, an event called “STEM Education Through the Lens of Space Exploration,” took place on campus in the McCarthy Center forum on Thursday, Aug. 11 and was open to the local community.

Irene Porro, the center’s director, said the event was an “opportunity to remember and celebrate” Christa McAuliffe’s legacy.

“This is really a legacy that compels us to look at the future not as something that will happen to us, but as something that we are responsible for and something we can shape,” she said.

Thursday’s event featured three different panel discussions and a tour of FSU’s McAuliffe center.

Over 100 people from the local community signed up for the event, along with approximately 20 FSU students.

A Multidisciplinary & Interdisciplinary Approach to Space Exploration

Frank White, author of “The Overview Effect,” moderated a panel discussion concerning the ways STEM subjects and non-STEM subjects intersect and shape human understanding in space exploration and interplanetary living.

“We’re entering a second space age where nations and individuals with the power, the vision and the interest are saying ‘We’re going to go out there and we’re not only going to explore the solar system but we are going to develop it,’” White said. “I think we’ve reached a tipping point, beyond which the discussion of whether we should [live in space] or not is beginning to fade. The question is … is it going to be done in the right way?”

White said to fully grasp the idea behind life on other planets, deeper “ethical, environmental, political, economic and artistic” discussions are needed.

White said he worked with Porro and launched the “Academy in Space Initiative” on April 6 with the purpose of bringing “the best minds on planet Earth to think about, in a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary way, the questions that arise when we talk about settling a new frontier.”

The discussion served as a continuation of a previous discussion had last April, White said.

The panel was made up of FSU education professor Kelly Kolodny, Senior Food Technologist at Natick Soldier Research Development & Engineering Center (NSRDEC) Michelle Richardson and Erica Jarwin, a graduate student in Brown University’s Planetary Geosciences group.

Kolodny shared her students’ reactions to the documentary “Overview” which expanded on the impact of seeing the Earth from outer space in 1968 from the Apollo 8 broadcast.

The documentary explained that the sight caused a shift in how the astronauts aboard the spacecraft saw the Earth in relation to the rest of the cosmos and the need for global sustainability.

White named that change in perspective “The Overview Effect.”

One student’s reflection read, “I believe that global citizenship is important because it takes children out of their small world and helps bring them into a larger perspective where they can then develop the realization that we are all one.”

Kolodny said, “I think that reflecting on space exploration and the ‘Overview’ is useful preparation for teachers, for all teachers not just STEM teachers. I think that the key outcome is … that it causes people to think broadly and deeply and then that shift takes place.”

Richardson detailed three projects NSRDEC is developing to curtail the difficulties in producing food for astronauts heading to Mars.

Richardson said that the project’s main concerns are making sure food is irradiated, as it allows for food to have a longer shelf life, improving meal replacement bars to reduce the weight of food during travel and the continued stabilization of vitamins entering space.

Jarwin said she is researching volcanic glass bead deposits formed on the Moon, which she said could “potentially” be “harvested” into water, metal and silicon on the Moon.

She said she is also studying climate change, glaciation and deglaciation on Mars.

When asked by White what humanity’s “proper response” should be if we were to find life on Mars, Jarwin related part of her answer to colonial times on Earth.

“If you look at our history of exploration it was horrible,” she said. “It was good for us white Europeans. … We might not find humans elsewhere, but we need to think about the ethical, political and economical ramifications of exploration and what we do with that.”

Sports on the Moon

Arthur Eisenkraft, director of the Center of Science and Math in Context at UMass Boston, detailed the aspects of “project based learning” and how space could be integrated into the curriculum by demonstrating a lesson plan he uses in the classroom.

Eisenkraft said he has worked to create lesson plans centered on student-led projects to help them understand scientific concepts, ideas and realities.

The idea behind the lesson plan “Sports on The Moon,” he said, is to challenge students to create their own sport on the moon after learning about its physical laws.

“When they come up there and [present their] sport, students in the class learn about the sport and learn the physics of the sport being reviewed again,” Eisenkraft said. “It’s reviewed many times in multiple contexts and then some students finally get it.”

He taught a summarized version of his class and broke down some of the Moon’s physical laws and how they differ from the Earth’s.

Some of this teaching included explaining that objects weigh six times less on the moon, while its mass is the same as it is on Earth.

The course is beneficial because it demands students become experts in the moon’s physics if they want their sport to be successful, he said.

“The learning takes place when they transfer their knowledge from the activity to the challenge,” Eisenkraft said. “When they are putting their sport together they say ‘Boy what was that about friction? Let’s go back and look at friction again.’ They are expected to know this.”

Participating in projects they can design themselves also motivates the students, according to Eisenkraft.

He said studies have found students enjoy defining “the content and the task” during lessons.

“See, with Sports on The Moon, I’m teaching the physics I have to teach but I’m not saying, ‘We are doing this with football because I like football.’ It’s pick any sport you’d like,” he said.

The Future of Space Exploration and its Impact on Stem

The final panel explored how the demand for STEM workers and the need for STEM technology are affected by space exploration.

The panel included Gregory H. Johnson, president and executive director for the Center for The Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and a former NASA astronaut, Steve Vinter, engineering director for Google, Inc. in Cambridge and co-founder of MassCAN, and Ryan Mudawar, manager of Academic and Workforce Programs at the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

Johnson said there are many different STEM careers within the realm of space exploration, such as aerospace, controllers and scientists.

“All the science that we do up on the space station, and technology, has a STEM component,” he said.

Programs that utilize STEM-related activities, such as robotics, can be very “impactful,” said Johnson, and could motivate children to pursue a career in a STEM field.

He said MIT’s Zero Robotics program, for example, allows children to work with the international space station (ISS) to code satellites during a competition, which “generated” a lot of excitement from the kids.

“It’s not just reach … but also the depth of reach, the impact. What we do on the ISS is all about the impact we want to have,” he said.

Mudawar said the life sciences industry can’t survive without “a strong, educated workforce – a pipeline of workers – that really stems from an early age.”

Supporting middle schools’, high schools’ and colleges’ STEM education programs is important to “generate” the talent needed for the life science industry in Massachusetts, said Mudawar, and ensure that “the skills that they’re gaining in the classroom are relevant and responsive to the needs of industry.”

Vinter said Massachusetts needs to build “our own collection of talent that’s capable of economically keeping the fires going,” in STEM-related fields.

“The hard part is actually getting kids to understand how important it is,” he said, adding exposing children to STEM education early on will make the fields “second nature” to them.

He added, “The things that seem incredibly difficult for all of us are just kind of silly and obvious to kids exposed to it early.”