During the summer of 2011 I had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Space Educator’s conference which is sponsored and held at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). It was fantastic and all expenses are covered by CSA! Subsequently I was interviewed by Randy Attwood from Space Quarterly magazine and am cited as a primary source for his article on the conference. The article appears below.
32 Space Quarterly December 2011
Inspiring the Next Generation of Space Explorers
By Randy Attwood
Randy Attwood has been following the space program for over 40 years. He has appeared on television and radio for over 30 years as a commentator. He is a Senior Editor at SpaceRef Interactive Inc. And Managing Editor of Space Quarterly.
While the space shuttle program was winding down earlier this year, NASA produced several videos profiling the people who worked on the program. Astronauts, mission controllers, and support personnel were asked why they chose to work in the space business. Many had the same answer: they had watched the first Apollo moonwalk at a very young and impressionable age. The idea of going into space stuck with them through school, and they made it their careers.
Now, with the remaining space shuttle orbiters heading to museums and the number of opportunities to fly in space reduced to a minimum, who will inspire today’s young people to follow the same paths to space? Not everyone wants to be an astronaut; some want to be engineers and technicians. But all have a story about a certain event or individual who inspired them to stay in school and follow their dream to space. For many, that person is a teacher.
Approximately every 10 years or so, the Canadian school curricula are revised. In the late 1990s, astronomy and space program material appeared in the grades 6 and 9 science curricula
for most provinces. Not all science teachers have a background in astronomy; so many teachers were suddenly facing classrooms full of eager students with a thousand questions. The teachers cried out for help.
One resource for teachers to turn to is the annual Space Educator Conference held at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Québec. This three-day conference held in early August provides an opportunity for educators to participate in workshops with CSA engineers and scientists. The conference covers space-related, curriculum-relevant topics at the primary and secondary levels.
Marilyn Steinberg is the Program Manager, Space Learning Program, at the CSA. In a recent interview with Space Quarterly, she talked about how it is a challenge to bring space to the students in the classroom: “Space is a natural hook because children tend to look outward. Space is not a concept; it is a context. From that context, you can explain and teach a vast variety of concepts that appear in the science, math, and technology curricula across the nation. The challenge for teachers,” she says, “is how to translate content so students can understand, engage, and apply it to their own experiences.
“The children are glowing with anticipation. They want to get their hands dirty; they want to think about the problem, they want to attack it. For a teacher who does not have a background in space, it is hard to satisfy the students’ expectations. The program we have developed here attempts in a variety of ways to address that. We give [the teachers] the opportunity to live, breath, and know space. We do this by offering the same kind of workshop that we would offer students. “We also want to make sure that the educator community has an opportunity to integrate with the scientists and engineers. The two communities speak vastly different languages. We take the time to train the scientists and engineers. They learn about curriculum, and they learn about teaching strategies. Ultimately, they are speaking the language of the classroom to the educators.”
One of the educators who attended this summer’s conference was Kay Stephen, a high school teacher from Ottawa: “The Educators Conference was amazing. My background is chemistry and biology so I didn’t know a lot [about space]. For teachers without a space background, the textbook is a good starting point. But things are changing all the time in space. After the conference, I felt current with what was happening in space and knew where they were going to next.”
An important aspect to teaching in Canada is STSE, which stands for science, technology, society, and the environment. (In the United States, they use STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) Essentially, STSE is the application of what the student learns in science to other areas, including his or her own environment and daily experiences. It is answering the question, what does this have to do with me?
Applying STSE to teaching space exploration is very important to Stephen: “That is what it is all about. That is where it all comes together. That’s where the kids take all the theory and apply it to real life.”
Stephen teaches applied-level students and says that without STSE, her students would not be engaged at all. “Every day, that’s all they want to do: get their hands on an activity, get their critical thinking engaged, and apply what they are learning.”
Stephen says that the highlight of this year’s conference was the workshop on Mars. “They
have an area that simulates the surface of Mars. They took us through the different labs where the actual research scientist made the presentation. There were no stupid questions. They spoke to me at my level. I can take the information back to my own grade 9 students. I was very impressed.”
The CSA does more than run the educator conference, though. Students can visit the CSA headquarters for workshops, and the CSA also sends presenters to schools. They perform 280 workshops a year. The educators who cannot get to the CSA can access online resources on the CSA Educator website.
And there are other programs for educators to use. The Tomatosphere project, which the CSA co-sponsors, has been active for the past nine years. Tomato seeds that have travelled in space are made available to students to grow and compare to similar seeds that have stayed behind on Earth. Students receive two packs of seeds; they conduct a scientific experiment and compare the germination rates of the two seed sets. Only after the experiment do they learn which pack of seeds had been exposed to a space environment and which were Earth seeds. During the nine year program, Steinberg estimates that 2 million students have participated in the Tomatosphere project.
A major project the CSA is working on for educators will be released a year from now. It
is a 3D interactive program that immerses the student into the space environment. With a Chris
Hadfield avatar as the student’s guide, they will learn to live on the International Space Station or fly the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. All along, they will be given problems to solve that require them to apply the scientific method and understand several important concepts. Their teacher will be linked in to monitor the students’ progress and act as Mission Control. The student avatars will join the Hadfield avatar and shrink down to either explore the internals of a green plant on the space station or examine the insides of a rocket engine on the Soyuz.
The challenge for the CSA? Canada is a large country, and there are thousands of teachers struggling to bring space and astronomy to their students. Unlike NASA, which has education centres spread across the country and a much bigger budget, the CSA is isolated on Montreal’s south shore.
“Many teachers don’t even know there is a CSA. [It’s] Canada’s best kept secret,” points out Kay Stephen. “Canadian educators need to know that there are grants to get CSA scientists to visit your schools.”
The CSA is about to undergo potentially severe budget cuts. Hopefully the CSA programs, which are meant to help educators across the country inspire our future space scientists, will not be too severely affected.
All photo credits in this blog post: Kay Stephen