Over the past few years I have been reading more and more about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Last summer I came across a STEM initiative like no other, one where students could literally reach for the stars (well, ok, low earth orbit)! Can you imagine the excitement of conducting an experiment in outer space? It really boggled the mind! I remember watching an episode of Top Chef right before we announced district-wide our participation in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) to all of the Pre-K through 8th grade students, and the prize for the winning chef that week was to have his/her food packaged and sent into space! I remember thinking how exciting that sounded and then about a heart beat later realized that our experiment would also be along for the incredible, historic ride! I kept having to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. This is the stuff dreams are made of!
I wanted every student in the district to be wildly excited about the adventure we were embarking on. We prepared a “No Gravity” show for all students showing astronauts eating balls of orange juice and floating around the International Space Station. We showed a group of teachers riding the Zero-G plane, that simulates weightlessness with a parabolic flight pattern, and playing a quick game of “teacher toss.” We had a “No Gravity Day” where all students imagined life without gravity and came to school with their hair sticking up or pencils floating next to their wrists attached by wire. And every child, all of them, asked a question about what life would be like without gravity. Each class chose their favorite question and we compiled a district wide list. Think about it yourself – go through one day wondering what each thing you do would be like without the effects of gravity.
Then the really amazing part of the project began. The older students in the middle school were not just going to wonder what would happen without gravity, they were going to design an experiment that might actually find out what happens without gravity! This was not an exercise in “what if” conducted by a classroom teacher. No, this was an opportunity to boldly go where no student in our region had gone before, to answer a question that had no answer yet. Therein lies the power. Beyond the magic of astronauts conducting their experiment, the real excitement and motivating force lies in the fact that teachers and experts can honestly say, “I don’t know the answer to what will happen because there have been no (or limited) experiments like yours. You will have to try the experiment and let the world know the answer!” Students always think that there is some special teachers manual that has all the answers to all the questions asked in class by students and teachers. In science it is important for students to learn that there are ways of seeking answers, but there is no official answer book that says with certainty whether you are correct and finished or wrong and must keep working. Science is always a journey of seeking the next pieces of the puzzle and trying to see where they fit. Well the students believed us when we said we did not have all the answers on this one. That is a powerful motivator. This is real, not some exercise dreamed up by a teacher for a grade!
As the students designed their experiments we had many wonderful experiences along the way. I found that to a person every expert who worked with us said they could not help us until we could tell them the question we wanted to answer. As we were a bit out of our comfort zone on a few experiment ideas the students were not sure of the exact question they wanted to ask. But honing the question was a powerful tool! The experts who agreed to work with us were an amazing bunch also. While the world is a busy place, the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program opened doors to scientists who were great teachers. Not a single expert gave answers. Each one only shared the ways scientists in their field think about problems and then gave the students more questions. It was clear that these experts were nurturing their replacements with the love of scientific inquiry. When one expert had to help a student understand the under the given constraints the student’s experiment was not viable, the expert nurtured other paths to pursuing the students dream for experimentation. That student learned to persevere and make adjustments. She learned that she was capable in the face of obstacles! In class students complain that if the problem the teacher wants them to solve is too difficult, it is the teacher’s fault. Here students persevered because they saw value in the process and were willing to struggle. One student had to learn how to do a complex math calculation that was beyond his current skills. He tackled the sample problem given by his mentor and then asked for another! Please challenge me was the quest! These are powerful lessons every teacher wants for his/her students.
Students realized that flying an experiment in space was an unusually rare opportunity. But when they saw the size of the experiment well, about a tenth of a cubic centimeter, they were especially struck by that thought. “That little?!” they exclaimed. They found that just getting water into the tiny wells of the apparatus was difficult! They grumbled that they would design a better apparatus, and then set about trying to figure out how to use the one they had available. Again persevering!
Near the end of this wonderful journey, the student whose experiment will fly visited every lunch period and told the students that when the Endeavour launched their experiment would be orbiting in space over their heads! The lunch-room monitors told us that they had NEVER heard the kindergarteners be so very quiet at lunch! We asked the students how many of them knew a scientist. A few students raised their hands. Then we told them they all knew a scientist because they all knew Brandon!
I tried to think of a way to explain the power of this SSEP experience for students and teachers. I like to use analogies in class and so here is my analogy for the SSEP experience. Have you ever planned a trip to someplace you have seen in photos, like to the Grand Canyon, to the Great Wall of China, or to the Eiffel Tower? You know exactly what the place looks like from the photos. But after you visit and return home and see the same photos, you realize that you now have a much richer, 3-dimensional understanding of the place. You can hear the sounds, smell the air, see what is beyond the photo and feel the culture of the place. You can never see that photo as a static 2-dimensional picture again. This has been the experience we had of STEM in this SSEP project. STEM is not merely about encouraging students to think about pursuing projects and classes in science, technology, engineering and math. It is about engaging them in rich problem solving involving all of those disciplines in a real and authentic way. Let them taste, smell, and feel the journey that is science! Thank you SSEP!
Sharon Churchwell, NBCT
6th Grade Science Teacher & Gifted Education Specialist, Lincolnwood School District 74
SSEP Community Program Director, Lincolnwood, Illinois