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Instructors Search for Answers in Space

Teachers Chris Krebeck, left, of Mitchell Elementary and Sandy Hizer of Gale-Bailey Elementary examine a model satellite they built.
Teachers Chris Krebeck, left, of Mitchell Elementary and Sandy Hizer of Gale-Bailey Elementary examine a model satellite they built. (Photos By James A. Parcell)

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By Michael Tunison
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007

The subject of the lecture was complex, but the 25 students sat rapt in the Maurice J. McDonough High School Media Center as they listened to Elaine Lewis and Steele Hill, two staff members from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via a live Internet broadcast

"Do you know what an aurora is?" Hill asked.

"Yes," the class said in unison.

"Have you ever seen one?"

"No."

And so went a detailed 90-minute presentation on the subject of solar storm phenomena.

Lewis and Hill weren't guiding traditional students through a lesson this week. They were teaching teachers -- instructors in Charles and St. Mary's counties -- who are looking to develop lesson plans that will engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

As part of an $80,000 contract that Charles County has with the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation, the national nonprofit organization held two week-long courses open to any educator in Southern Maryland. By participating, teachers were also able to earn credits toward Maryland State Department of Education requirements or graduate-level certificate programs.

Iain Probert, the director of education enterprise for the Space Foundation, said this is the first program for educators the organization has held outside its headquarters. The Board of Education approached the organization about bringing the courses to Charles based on the experiences of two county teachers who traveled to Colorado Springs in July 2006 to participate in the program.

This summer, teachers spent a week each learning about Earth systems science and kinesthetic astronomy. At the end of each course, the teachers submitted a lesson plan that incorporated the hands-on learning techniques they've reviewed. For the kinesthetic astronomy program, the group built model satellites using four pieces they could manipulate. They also spent a day touring the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

"I've lived in Maryland for 45 years and I didn't know it was that huge and had that much to do with each flight," said Erica Strass, a science teacher at Berry Elementary School in Waldorf. "I couldn't believe how much was going on and how much of that they were willing to share with you. I've been teaching since 1982, and these two weeks have been the most informative experience that I've had. I do some lessons in astronomy. After this, I'm definitely interested in expanding them."

Charles County school officials said they hope that emphasis on science instruction in the classroom, like the program itself, will grow within the next few years. Sue Gray, content specialist for science and environmental education, said the school board hopes to expand the Space Foundation program from two weeks to six weeks within two years.

The next high school to be built in Charles County, located off Piney Church Road in Waldorf and slated to open for the 2011-12 school year, will include a digital classroom that will feature a multi-use domed planetarium, schools representative Katie O'Malley-Simpson said.

Probert said the outreach programs push the looming need for experts in space science. With NASA retiring its space shuttle fleet in 2010 and a large portion of its workforce needing to be retrained, there will be many opportunities for students to play pivotal roles in the space program.

That is something Ian Buter, a sixth-grade science teacher at Matthew Henson Middle School in Indian Head, takes to heart. He explains to his students that if they apply themselves, they very well could be the first astronauts to touch down on Mars. Buter, one of the teachers who took part in the pilot program last year, said the courses are very useful to teachers when trying to grab students' attention.

"When I teach things about stars to students, I usually show them a PowerPoint presentation," Buter said. "Someone at Goddard gave us a hands-on demonstration about black holes and supernovas."

Goddard believes it is that kind of demonstration -- which in his case involved a basketball and tennis ball -- that will entice students to participate in the lecture.

"Once students see that," he said, "they'll instantly want to do it."


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