NASA Grants Rocket Informal Ed Ahead

As part of a NASA CP4SMPVC grant to Fairchild Tropical
Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida, middle and high
school students have identified 91 varieties of edible plants
suitable for zero-gravity growth. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kearns, Jose Marti MAST 6–12 Academy

Grants from NASA’s Competitive Program for Science Museums, Planetariums, and NASA Visitor Centers (CP4SMPVC) enable the agency to partner with informal education venues to enhance their space science related–programs and engage teachers and students in NASA’s mission. But the CP4SMPVC hasn’t awarded new grants since early 2017. Why should science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers care about this?

Teachers and students partnering with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida, on the Growing Beyond Earth (GBE) STEM education program care because in the first two years of Fairchild’s $1.25 million, four-year CP4SMPVC grant for the program, middle and high school students identified 91 varieties of edible plants suitable for zero-gravity growth in the International Space Station’s plant growth facility. GBE students have tested 106 varieties of plants so far as part of the Fairchild Challenge, a Miami-based environmental science competition, according to Amy Padolf, Fairchild’s director of education. Padolf and Carl Lewis, Fairchild’s director, designed GBE with researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

According to Padolf, 136 classrooms in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties participate, and GBE will expand to “another 15 in Palm Beach County” and be tested at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio.

With the grant funding, which began in 2016 and will last until 2020, “we give schools all the equipment necessary to conduct the research, along with rigid research protocols from NASA scientists, and provide training for the teachers,” Padolf explains. The schools grow the plants, collect data, and “input it into spreadsheets that are shared with NASA researchers… It’s one of the few NASA grant projects that is feeding their research,” she points out.

Students are getting real-world experience “working with plant research, statistics, and data collection; writing proposals; and presenting research posters that NASA will review,” Padolf relates, “and NASA scientists are communicating with students regularly via Twitter [@GrowBeyondEarth].”

Teachers report that “students have a greater interest in plant science and STEM careers…Kids who have never grown anything are [feeling] empowered,” she contends.

Teaching Students About Flight

Teachers and students who visit the Flight aerospace exhibit at EdVenture, an educational museum in Columbia, South Carolina, would care if EdVenture hadn’t received its three-year, $893,224 CP4SMPVC grant. The grant provided funds to design and build the exhibit—including a real Boeing 757 cockpit attached to the museum—and create programs that draw on students’ interest in flight, space, engineering, and physics. “The exhibit [conveys] the excitement of flight to children to get them interested in science,” says EdVenture President and CEO Karen Coltrane.

The funding also enables teachers to bring students to the museum as part of a field study experience in which students do an activity chosen by their teachers and hear about aerospace careers and opportunities in South Carolina. “More and more this has to be funded because schools don’t have a budget for field trips, which are memorable for students,” Coltrane maintains.
EdVenture is leveraging the grant to gain funds from other sources to provide professional development (PD) for K–8 teachers in using NASA and STEM content and resources. “We recognize that teachers may not be familiar with airplane manufacturing. We knew we could be helpful” in educating teachers about it so they can help students understand why advanced degrees are needed to work in 21st-century factories, Coltrane observes.

“We’re starting with the youngest students to give them real-life experiences to prepare them for the workforce,” remarks Nikki Williams, EdVenture’s executive vice president. “There aren’t a lot of varied opportunities for [PD] for teachers of grades 4–8 [in our area]… We want to make sure teachers have opportunities to feel confident in their delivery [of the content].”

Infusing NASA Content

Teachers and students in Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) district would care if the Howard B. Owens Science Center in Lanham, Maryland—which is owned and operated by the district—wasn’t awarded a CP4SMPVC grant in 2014. The center’s NASA Earth, Solar, and Planetary Science Infusion Project received the five-year grant of $409,047 to hold programs for grades 3–8 featuring NASA Sun-Earth connections, comparative planetology, and NASA Space Weather Action Center data.

“We do a lot of PD with teachers [to give them] tools to use NASA resources,” says Russell Waugh, an Owens outreach teacher. The grant funding is used to purchase supplies and materials for these workshops. In one workshop, “teachers learn about telescopes and build a small telescope to use in their classrooms…[In another,] we show third-grade teachers how to use NASA data.”

“We try to help teachers meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) [because] a lot of teachers aren’t familiar with them yet. Our curriculum is based on [the NGSS],” says Patricia Seaton, the center’s planetarium specialist. “Our county curriculum aligns with this grant,” she adds.

“The funds mainly go to teachers for their time here,” Waugh points out. “We give teachers time out of class to gain additional experiences with science content and related fields, and tools to use with students in hands-on activities.”

“Teachers get a stipend for participating [in our activities] and free materials,” notes Seaton.

“We [also] use the PD to introduce teachers to our programs for students, to generate enthusiasm for teachers to bring their students here,” Waugh explains.

“We have a Challenger Center spacecraft simulator mission called Earth Odyssey [that shows students] the advantages of remote sensing…It’s as if they’re flying in space. The kids are impressed,” Waugh relates. Student Challenger missions are regularly enhanced with new NASA content, and the grant funds “have enabled us to keep [the Challenger simulator] updated so we can keep running it,” he reports.

“Our aim is to develop a pipeline of students who would get experience with NASA data and missions and have different experiences in each grade [that would inspire them] to pursue STEM studies and careers,” Waugh contends.

Without the grant, “we’d be losing the possibility of developing opportunities for students and the public to learn what NASA is doing,” Seaton and Waugh maintain.

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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