Coming soon to a school near you is a shiny, silver Airstream RV, emblazoned with "NASA to the Schools, Penn State" as part of a five-year cooperative agreement for Penn State to be NASA's face to K-12 education.
The cooperative agreement for the Aerospace Education Services Program is funded for up to $27.3 million over the next five years. The program, one of the oldest in NASA, is in its 35th year. Penn State took over Sept. 1 from Oklahoma State University.
"This is the only program in the U.S. that can put professional science educators on the ground in 50 states and territories," says William S. Carlsen, professor of science education and director of Penn State's Center for Science and the Schools.
The Penn State program will shift the existing emphasis from one-time school visits and short teacher seminars to university-based space-oriented summer courses for teachers. School visits will continue, but rather than emphasizing auditorium presentations, NASA education specialists will work closely with teachers and school administrators to infuse cutting-edge science content into extended instructional units. Education specialists will also collect data on how summer course experiences translate to the classroom and how teachers adapt materials to the various states and schools.
"We are excited about this wonderful opportunity to make NASA and scientific research come alive in the minds of students and teachers in schools throughout the nation," says David H. Monk, dean, College of Education, Penn State. "By informing the great curiosity that surrounds space and space exploration with real science, we will be stimulating interest in the sciences and better preparing all students to function effectively in our increasingly technically oriented society."
"For years, NASA has offered professional development for teachers without routinely engaging universities and colleges," says Carlsen, who is the project's principal investigator. "Institutions of higher education are obvious partners for NASA in offering sustainable professional development."
In recent years, nearly all 50 states have adopted regulations requiring teachers to pursue continuing education credits to retain licensing. NASA to the Schools will develop and pilot test new courses at Penn State and then, through a subcontract with the National Space Grant Foundation, support the courses at other schools for the first two years, allowing the courses time to establish reputations. Lisa Brown, director of Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, will serve as liaison to the Foundation.
A meeting at Cornell University with scientists who study Mars will kick off development of the first course for teachers. To supplement instruction by classroom teachers who have enrolled in summer courseware, the six Airstream "NASA to the Schools" vehicles will crisscross the country with a scaled-down version of a Martian Rover. Just like a real Rover, these half-pints will sport cameras that enable them to monitor their environment in 3-D. In a novel twist, the educational rovers will also have the capability of projecting images in 3-D using "GeoWall" technology, letting students see exactly what the Rovers saw on Mars.
NASA to the Schools will use many new instructional technologies, developing continuing education content for delivery through NASA's Digital Learning Network. Education specialists will get in on the ground floor of new NASA projects to aid them in their continuing education components as well.
"The plan is that all field-based personnel will stay on for at least a year while the transition takes place," says Carlsen. "We are proposing some real changes to the program"
These changes will eventually find six traveling educational specialists roaming the nation while 16 specialists assigned to the 10 NASA research centers focus on curriculum development, evaluation and innovation. The lead NASA location is Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Penn State's College of Education will house the AESP. Thomas Taylor, programs manager, Penn State Center for Space Research Programs, will serve as associate director for Business and Alliances.
Each specialist will have specific assignments to avoid duplication. For example, one specialist might track space funding coming from non-NASA agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We know that the NASA education budget is not enough to accomplish our goals," says Carlsen. "We need to play with everybody." Another aspect of the program will be to update orphaned instructional materials created by NASA since the Apollo program. NASA to the Schools will also work closely with NASA Explorer Schools, a program that works with schools in underserved areas and aim to bring exciting science and technology to the students and the students to the technological workforce.
"To accomplish its ambitious goals for exploration and scientific research, NASA needs many more talented people in the science and engineering pipeline," says Carlsen. "Recruiting new talent is important for NASA and for America's colleges and universities."