Jefferson blasts off

School enters three-year partnership with NASA

THE WEDGE — When Ray Lugo looked out across the Jefferson Community School auditorium he didn’t see just a sea of students.

The deputy director of NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland saw future astronauts.

During the ceremony to announce Jefferson’s selection for the NASA Explorer School project, Lugo reminded students the space agency plans for a return to the moon and, eventually, a trip to Mars in coming decades. When those missions launch, it may be one of today’s elementary or middle school students at the helm of a next-generation space ship.

Later, when Glenn Research Center Director of Engineering Olga González-
Sanabria asked which students thought they could be astronauts one day, a hand shot up from nearly every seat.

The Nov. 15 ceremony marked the start of a three-year partnership between Jefferson and NASA intended to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for students in grades 4–8.

Jefferson was one of 25 schools nationwide chosen this year to enter the program, which includes about 70,000 students at 175 other NASA Explorer Schools. Anwatin Middle School in Bryn Mawr, also an explorer school, has completed its three-year partnership.

Jefferson will receive $17,500 to purchase classroom technology. The space agency also pays for teachers to pursue professional development at NASA workshops, where they will learn through hands-on activities they can bring back to their classrooms.

The goal of all this is simple: to inspire student achievement in math and science through space exploration.

Principal Ray Aponte said Jefferson had already planned its first purchase with the NASA technology grant.

In January, a new video teleconferencing system will allow students and teachers to have face-to-face conversations with NASA staff. Even staff not currently based on planet Earth.

"That will give us live contact with astronauts when they are up in space," Aponte said.

Or, a science class might speak with a ground-based NASA engineer during a classroom experiment. The NASA Explorer School program is designed to be flexible, so that each participating school can use the agency’s resources in their own way.

"It’s not a cookie-cutter program," said NASA spokeswoman Lori Rachul. "It’s very aligned to their needs."

Anwatin math teacher Joseph Chan said it was up to teachers to make the most of the program. It could have a large or small impact on student learning depending on how much effort individual teachers put into using the NASA curriculum, Chan said.

Chan used those resources in his 6th-grade math class by having students build a scale model of the Earth and moon. He also used NASA resources for a unit on the principals of flight. Anecdotally, at least, the extra support from NASA can boost student achievement, Rachul said.

"We have had comments from schools that their statewide achievement scores have improved," she said. "They’ve seen improvement in their students and their interest toward science."

In May, the Jefferson "core team" — including Aponte and three teachers — traveled to Glenn Research Center for an introduction to the NASA curriculum, including lessons on robotics, mapping and micro-gravity.

Rachul said the dedication of that team was a big reason why Jefferson was chosen for the program. NASA also appreciated the school’s diversity, she added.

Aponte said Jefferson’s science classes already have an emphasis on global warming, and teachers hope to supplement those lessons with NASA resources.

With the help of NASA, the school also started a Girls in Engineering, Math and Science (GEMS) afterschool program this year. By November, about 60 girls were participating, Aponte said.

"We know that kids have to do well in math and science in order to go into the more specialized fields in high school and college [and beyond]," he said.

First, though, young students need a reason to get excited about math and science, and it helps when they meet adults with interesting careers in those fields, Aponte added.

"Kids have to see it to believe it," he said.

Jefferson teachers want students to reach for the stars, literally. The space program certainly inspired Lugo’s career choices.

Lugo told students he was in a classroom "40-some-odd years ago" when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon. In 1975, six years after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the lunar surface, Lugo was working in the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.