Educator Features

NASA's Flying Trailer
10.27.05
A small group of people stand outside of a large tractor trailer with the NASA logo and the words Mobile Aerospace Education Laboratory painted on the side
Thanks to a NASA educational facility using the latest in computer technology, students can participate in a cross-country airplane flight or visit the international space station without leaving the classroom. But, while the students don't really travel across the nation, the classroom does!

Image to left: The MAEL trailer has traveled almost 100,000 miles, visiting 121 cities. Credit: NASA

The Mobile Aerospace Education Laboratory program uses NASA's exciting work in air and space flight to motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The program is based on a traveling trailer equipped with computer workstations. The MAEL trailer travels to partnership cities around the country, and allows students to participate in hands-on activities at 10 workstations that model real-world challenges in aviation and microgravity research.

Each of the workstations challenges students to gather different types of data needed to solve aviation problems or perform simulated microgravity experiments. In the process, they not only discover exciting real-world applications of science, mathematics and technology, but also learn more about interesting careers in those fields. The workstations focus on a variety of topics, each with an educational element, and can be used for either aeronautics or microgravity activities.

For the aeronautics scenario, the focus of the activities is a cross-country trip between NASA centers on either coast of the United States. The Remote Sensing workstation, for example, features activities involving the use of images captured by aircraft and satellites. Students use measurement and ratio concepts to determine distances using map scales. At the Aircraft Design workstation, students must learn about various factors that affect aircraft performance, and use simplified computer-assisted design, or CAD, software to create aircraft plans and chart a flight path. Another application is then used to simulate a flight using their creations. Their efforts culminate at the Virtual Reality workstation, where a state-of-the-art, immersive virtual reality system puts students in the pilot's seat while they navigate and fly pre-planned courses in a twin engine aircraft.

The microgravity scenario gives students a look at what it's like to live, work and conduct research in orbit. The Microgravity Demonstrator, for example, gives students first-hand experience with the results of weightlessness in a 10-foot drop tower. At the Fluid Physics/Combustion Science workstation, students learn how fluids and flames react in a weightlessness environment, and the importance of learning about the differences in their behavior on Earth and in orbit. The Virtual Reality Lab, for the microgravity scenario, allows students to act as commander and pilot of a space shuttle orbiter while flying around the ISS or landing at Edwards Air Force Base.

A man wearing a NASA shirt points to the screen as a student pilots a flight simulator
The MAEL traveling classroom has been very popular with the students, said MAEL program manager Dovie Lacy. "It is very well-received. It is always a hit; people love it. Most of the students really like the virtual reality station."

Image to right: Ten workstations, including a virtual reality station, provide students with unique learning opportunities. Credit: NASA

In addition to serving as a unique mobile classroom, the MAEL serves a dual purpose. Because of its state-of-the-art technology, the MAEL serves as a test bed for the use of new technologies in education, and a demonstrator that allows teachers and administrators to see those new technologies in action. When not being used in its classroom mode, the MAEL also travels in "tour mode," giving the public a unique look at NASA's efforts in aeronautics, microgravity research and education.

The MAEL program was created through a partnership between NASA's Glenn Research Center and Cuyahoga Community College, both in Cleveland, Ohio, with support from three other NASA aeronautics centers. In addition, educators helped develop the curriculum used in the MAEL program. To expand on the success of the MAEL program, NASA launched the Aerospace Educational Laboratory project. Through this project, rather than being limited to brief visits by the traveling trailer, the MAEL program can be a permanent fixture at partner institutions. To date, 34 schools, universities and informal educational sites across the country have set up classrooms with the AEL workstations.

Since it began in 1996, the MAEL has traveled almost 100,000 miles, attending 178 events in 121 cities in 40 states. Recently, the MAEL program was selected as the recipient of the 2005 education honor at NASA's Turning Goals Into Reality award ceremony, held on Oct. 25. Each year, outstanding programs are honored for exceptional contributions and progress toward achieving program goals and objectives of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. MAEL was chosen to receive the award recognizing efforts in the field of inspiring and motivating students and engaging the public.

"We're very pleased and excited," MAEL program administrator Rick Gilmore said of the award. "We feel that the project has a long history of success, but recognizing the prestige of the TGIR award, we're excited about the honor."

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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services