Space the final frontier for encouraging STEM in Nelson County

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Foster Heights Elementary School (Nelson County) 5th-grade student Mackenize Brady talks with astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who was speaking from the International Space Station. High school students from the Nelson County Area Technology Center helped the students make contact with the space station using an amateur radio. Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 28, 2011
Foster Heights Elementary School (Nelson County) 5th-grade student Mackenize Brady talks with astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who was speaking from the International Space Station. High school students from the Nelson County Area Technology Center helped the students make contact with the space station using an amateur radio. Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 28, 2011

By Matthew Tungate

Students at Foster Heights Elementary School (Nelson County) got to speak via radio last school year to an astronaut orbiting miles overhead. Students at the Nelson County Area Technology Center (ATC), participating in Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, operated the amateur radio equipment that made it possible.

Charlie Cantrill, information technology instructor at the Nelson County ATC for the last eight years, hopes the experience will encourage some of the students to go into a science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) field.

“This was nine minutes where my students operated the ground control segment of a radio link to the Space Station while Foster Heights Elementary students talked to (astronaut) Cady Coleman aboard the station,” Cantrill said.

The activity was part of a $58,000 Perkins Reserve Fund federal grant Nelson County ATC received in the summer of 2010 to create a new career pathway that integrates space science into traditional academic and technical classes.

“The goal of the pathway was to get the kids involved in STEM and doing this with a focus on space sciences, which actually works better for the younger kids, as we all know how they love space,” Cantrill said. “The older kids tend to embrace the technical end of things, so it seemed to fit well.

“Our goal is to have high school students mentor the younger grade school students by doing demonstrations of space communications, weather balloon experiments and other radio communications activities.”

Once such experiment with Foster Heights Elementary students included launching a weather balloon called a CricketSat, which was invented by Professor Bob Twiggs of Morehead State University, Cantrill said.

The CricketSat, which only costs $40, is a circuit for a weather balloon that uses a radio transmitter, receiver and receiving antennae to transmit temperatures at high altitudes. During one experiment, the balloon hit an inversion zone, where higher level air is warmer than the lower level of air. The students’ data matched predictions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Cantrill said.

“So the integration there, from our end, is that the kids are learning the radios and the transmitter and building these CricketSats from scratch, so they’re learning electronics. On the science end, they’re learning about the atmosphere, its layers and the temperatures,” he said. “That’s the best-spent $40 I’ve ever seen. Those kids absolutely loved it.”

John A. Sanders, first-year associate principal of Grant County High School and coordinator for Career and Technology, was principal at the Nelson County Area Technology Center for the previous five years.

“It is our hope that students will begin to take interest in space through science classes at the early elementary level,” he said. “From that point, we will gather names of students who excelled or showed specific interest in space science on their ILPs (Individual Learning Plans).”

Sanders said educators need to understand that students are consumed by technology.

“Today’s students will not obtain information through lectures and reading text; it is something they need to touch and create,” he said. “What better way to learn problem-solving than to design and build a robot, or for a student to learn about barometric pressure by launching a weather balloon equipped with electronic devices that they have created, and sending pressure and temperature readings directly to their laptops.”

Integrating science into technology classes and technology into science classes is another benefit of the collaboration, Cantrill said. For instance, his ATC students monitor satellites as they travel in orbit around the Earth.

“It’s done by a computer, but the students need to know and understand that there is orbital data associated with those satellites that needs to be kept up to date,” he said.

To understand orbits, students have to understand Keplerian elements – which ordinarily would not be taught in one of his classes.

“When we talk about a low-earth orbiting satellite, I need to explain orbital elements or they’ll never understand why the satellite isn’t overhead,” he said.

William R. Bennett, science department chairman at Nelson County High School and member of the board of directors for the Kentucky Science Teachers Association, co-created the pathway with Cantrill.

He said 20 students are participating in the pathway, which has required courses in Conceptual Physics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry I, AP Chemistry/General College Chemistry, Algebra II, AP Calculus, AP Computer Science, CAD, Electronic Circuits, Satellite Telecommunications/Cisco Networking, IT Essentials, and Astronomy.

Students also must participate in the Robotics Club, Bennett said.

“Our ultimate goal is to prepare highly qualified students to enter any university space program throughout the country,” Bennett said. “Currently, universities are struggling to find U.S. students who want to enter the space program. Our program will be a conduit for those programs. Additionally, our students will be qualified for many unfilled space science scholarship positions.”

Cantrill said Nelson County is already working the Kentucky Space and the STEM SpaceLab. Kentucky Space, a non-profit enterprise, collaborates with Morehead State, the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System to research and develop educational and entrepreneurial space technology. STEM SpaceLab is a dual-credit, two-year high school program aligned with national engineering and science standards. It is designed to foster an interest in STEM subjects and culminates with a senior project that involves flying an actual science payload into space. The blended learning class is being piloted in Kentucky prior to a national rollout in 2012-13.

Kentucky Space is pushing an initiative to increase STEM by getting kids into space sciences, Cantrill said. Last spring, Nelson County students participated in a near-space research program, sending balloons 100,000 feet to the edge of space.

“It’s a pretty amazing opportunity for the high school students to get involved in,” Cantrill said. “We’re not just talking about space, we’re experiencing space.”

The program benefits students even if they don’t ultimately choose a career in space technology, Cantrill said.

“It could be just they decide to become a computer scientist. Or they could decide to be a materials engineer, or an electrical engineer, or it could be they don’t decide any of that, they just decide to become an IT (information technology) administrator. But that’s still in the STEM field,” he said. “There are thousands of jobs in Kentucky that benefit from STEM.”

There is an even broader goal for Sanders.

“I think the ultimate goal for this pathway is similar to what we want as educators across the board – we want our students to not only learn content, but we want them to enjoy learning,” he said. “It is my goal that our students develop the concept of becoming lifelong learners.”

MORE INFO …
Charlie Cantrill, charlied.cantrill@ky.gov, (502) 348-9096
William R. Bennett, bill.bennett@nelson.kyschools.us, (502) 349-7010

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