Educator Features

"This Was Surreal"
07.23.07
Talking with an astronaut on the International Space Station was one giant leap for students in Central Islip, N.Y. But it was only one step in a program of incorporating NASA content for local schools.

On May 31, 2007, students in the Central Islip School District, located 30 miles east of New York, N.Y., recently spoke with astronaut Suni Williams, who was aboard the International Space Station as a member of the Expedition 15 crew. (Williams returned home in June 2007 on the STS-117 space shuttle mission.)

Several students stand in front of a large screen on which Williams is visible
During the live downlink, students had the opportunity to ask Williams questions about her experiences living and working in space.

Image to left: Students line up to ask questions of Suni Williams during the downlink event. Credit: Central Islip

"It was intense," said Ken Forman, a science teacher at the district's Ralph G. Reed Middle School. "As Suni came on and said hello, the room erupted. The walls shook from the cheers."

For the students, and the teachers and administrators who helped make it happen, the event elicited a "whirlwind of emotions," Forman said. "There was no single word to describe the emotion in the room."

The excitement of educational downlink events supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Even after the 20-minute conversation with the space station was over, the event had a lasting impact on the district's students, according to Phil Voigt, an administrator for the school district. "Now more people are following events on the space station," he said. "There's a connection."

In particular, he said, students followed with great interest the STS-117 mission, during which Williams completed her record-breaking stay on the orbiting laboratory and returned to Earth. Williams traveled into space on the STS-116 flight of Space Shuttle Discovery in December 2006 and began a six-month stay on the International Space Station.

In February 2007, after completing the third of her four spacewalks, Williams set a new record for the most time spacewalking by a woman, a total of 22 hours and 27 minutes. Toward the end of her stay, Williams also set a new record for female total spaceflight duration. She ended her mission just two days short of the U.S. single-flight duration record of 196 days.

"Suni is our astronaut," Voigt said. "We gave the space program some meaning for our students. It's not just something happening outside their world.

"Anything that we can bring to them that's surreal just opens their minds," he said. "And this was surreal."

Related Resources
+ NASA Education Web Site

+ International Space Station

+ Expedition 15

+ Suni Williams Biography

+ STS-118

+ Digital Learning Network

+ EarthKAM

+ AESP
The downlink with Suni Williams was only one part of an ongoing effort to bring spaceflight into classrooms at the Central Islip School District. Playing a key role in that effort has been Forman, who has been a part of both worlds.

In 2004, Forman was nominated as a candidate for NASA's selection of new Educator Astronauts. Although he was not selected as an astronaut, Forman became a part of NASA's Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, and worked for a year in the education office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. This summer's STS-118 space shuttle mission marks a significant milestone for the Educator Astronaut program, with mission specialist Barbara Morgan becoming the first Educator Astronaut to make a spaceflight.

At NASA, he served as a bridge between the agency and the community of classroom educators to help both compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people. Now, he’s delighted to have the opportunity to serve as a similar bridge between his school and NASA.

Other activities that have taken place since his return to the district from NASA include teleconferences using the agency's Digital Learning Network, a visit from a NASA education specialist from the Aerospace Education Services Program, first-hand stories about the Apollo 13 mission from a NASA engineer, and participation in the EarthKAM, or Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students, project. The school also borrowed lunar rock samples from NASA, and students have been following NASA space shuttle and space station missions. These experiences, and many others, have been connected to education standards in order to add excitement to students’ regular lessons.

In the wake of the downlink event, Forman said, the district focuses even more on incorporating NASA content in the schools, capitalizing on the excitement inspired by the space-to-ground interview. "We don't want to let the opportunity slip by," he said. "We want to keep the ball rolling."

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services