Enthusiastic teachers from around the country gathered at NASA’s facilities in Palmdale, Calif., in late June to participate in NASA’s Airborne Research Experiences for Educators and Students, or AREES, workshop.
For two weeks, the educators were involved in activities that focused on NASA’s Earth science programs and flight research missions.
In the first week, 12 elementary and high school teachers discovered how to find NASA educational resources, learned about aircraft used for Earth observation and data collection, and designed an engineering challenge at the AERO Institute in Palmdale where NASA’s Dryden education office is located.
“Design challenge was a blast,” said Michigan high school teacher Eric Thuma. “It really got me thinking about teaching the process of engineering design and how easy it is to overlook or underplay the role of design in classroom projects.” The teachers learned how engineers design hardware for integrating specialized science instruments into aircraft for optimum use by scientists to collect data for observing and monitoring terrestrial changes.
NASA Dryden ER-2 operations engineer Mike Kapitzke described how engineers have to consider instrument weight and dimensions as well as the specifics of the instrument, such as pressurization requirements or a port window to peer out of, all while keeping in mind the aircraft’s center of gravity.
In workshops, subject matter experts provided an overview of the Airborne Science Program, discussed the science behind the missions and selection of the appropriate aircraft for the mission, and use and communication of the data gathered from aircraft such as the high-altitude ER-2.
In addition, the teachers learned why maintaining wetlands such as Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay, Calif., were important in protecting the environment. Aircraft data collection is crucial to showing the changes to land topography over time.
During a tour of NASA Dryden’s Aircraft Operation Facility in Palmdale, engineers showed the teachers where these science instruments were located on the aircraft. Scientists described the study of wetlands using instruments such as the Medium-Altitude Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflective Radiometer, or MASTER, a scanner that operates in the visible light to thermal infrared spectrum. MASTER is used to study the Earth system and to calibrate and validate measurements from space satellites.
By the second week, an additional 14 educators from NASA’s Explorer Schools program joined the AREES participants to participate in a simulated NASA ER-2 Earth science mission. The teachers compared imagery and data collected by science instruments from previous airborne missions to ground data and imagery obtained during their field site visit to Elkhorn Slough.
Tennessee elementary science teacher Michael Lowry said these NASA resources were excellent.
“The big challenge as a science educator is to make science more of a verb action and less of a noun thing,” he said. “We solved interesting geometry problems as they related to radar imaging.”
He added that the teachers had to consider where, how and why research tools are used in remote sensing. He said they even grappled with the real-world dilemma of cost-versus-return on scientific investment.
When the educators return to their classrooms, they are expected to translate their experiences through the development of action plans based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, academic disciplines. The plans are to be based on an AREES foundation, including on-going research.
“I feel confident that our training, guest speakers, materials and hands-on activities will provide us with the necessary tools to help us succeed in meeting the challenges of creating a STEM action plan,” said California middle school science teacher Michael Aktutay.