David Alexander, Digital Learning Network coordinator for Oklahoma State University's program at the AERO Institute, is at work in his studio producing interactive learning experiences for students. (NASA Photo by Tom Tschida) Students from across the nation will be able to take a tour of Dryden without ever having to leave their classrooms.
No buses or plane tickets will be necessary for learning what's going on at Dryden. That's one of David Alexander's many ideas. Alexander is the Digital Learning Network coordinator for Oklahoma State University's program at the Aerospace Education Research and Operations, or AERO Institute in Palmdale and a member of the Dryden Education Office.
NASA's DLN provides live, engaging and interactive learning programs for students and educators through a videoconferencing connection. Students at all education levels can interact directly with NASA experts, engineers and researchers to gain new appreciation for the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, Alexander said.
The new coordinator's small yet technologically savvy television studio at the AERO Institute is where he can be the host of learning experiences for students across the nation. Unlike other NASA offerings that are limited by geographical areas of influence, this network knows no boundaries, he explained.
Materials can be used by any school that has the teleconferencing equipment available to connect with the DLN, Alexander said.
Teachers can sign up for the presentations that would cost between $200 and $600 or more to purchase, but are offered at no cost through NASA, he said. Alexander can host the experiences for students across the nation with the wealth of ready-to-go shows ranging by topic and grade level from kindergarten through grade 12 and some college.
Once a show is selected by a teacher and scheduled and it has been confirmed the school has the equipment to receive the broadcast, Alexander can go to work. He hosts the shows and does interviews with subject experts and interactive activities with the students, like drawing pictures. He also uses the teacher in his presentations to help engage students. He equates what he does to Mr. Rogers meeting Mr. Wizard, with a whole lot of NASA mixed in.
An example of his work was when he came up with material for a segment on Dryden's X-43A, which included an interview with Paul Reukauf, the project's deputy project manager at Dryden. He also uses the studio's teleconferencing hardware and software to create new shows, commercials and multimedia elements. The studio has a control room, backgrounds, and, of course, a huge cardboard NASA meatball. He also has a shirt and lab coat with the NASA logo as additional props.
For the X-43A segment he used clips from Dryden's Web site, news releases and a Power Point presentation he constructed from those materials, hosted the show and also switched from the interview to the other elements of the presentation at the same time. He performed as a one-man operation.
However, Alexander said he has found willing partners at Dryden and that public affairs representatives were helpful in his efforts to find Reukauf as well as other resources that were key in his ability to produce the X-43A effort.
Alexander is currently working to capture the Dryden tour experience and make that available to students across the nation. He already has footage of one of his tours with guide Winette Vandam and is assembling components that will showcase Dryden's history and current projects in a way he intends to engage students.
"DLN is the wave of the future and the future is now," he said. "To be able to connect with audiences with no barriers is great because students can treasure and receive motivation from these engaging presentations."
Alexander's experiences and skills have all been used and stretched with the DLN since he accepted the position in September 2008. His impact was immediate. The Dryden DLN had been languishing for about a year with technical issues that kept its potential from being realized, he said. He went right to work and had the Dryden DLN running about 30 days after he was hired - just in time for the addition of the NASA at 50 segment to the menu of choices offered through the DLN.
He has a degree in biology from Loyola University in Chicago and a master's degree in instructional and curriculum design at American Intercontinental University, which is based in Los Angeles. He has been an academic advisor and a learning center director and those experiences well prepared him for what he calls "edutainment," or a blending of education and entertainment.
Other preparation for his current job was his hobby. Alexander has a sound studio in his residence and he has worked with aspiring artists in Chicago and Los Angeles to create electronic dance, pop and rock music. Those skills have come into play in creating music for some of his former distance learning work and for a recent commercial he produced for the DLN.
His involvement with music and his interest in NASA date back to high school. In an article on Alexander published in his high school yearbook on his disc jockey work, he mentioned the importance of education to him and his ultimate goal - working for NASA as an aeronautical engineer.
While he didn't become an aeronautical engineer, he most likely will interview and work with them in his new post. In fact, each NASA center has a DLN coordinator and each has an area of specialty. In Alexander's case, that's flight and research.
His enthusiasm for his job and the topics he tackles are evident when he talks. His eyes light up and he is animated.
"You have to be excited to make the students excited too," he said.
In addition to meeting the needs of schools seeking out information on technologies, Alexander wants Dryden researchers, engineers and subject matter experts with a need to communicate to broad audiences to know that he's the guy to help them reach young minds. That works two ways, he said.
People who want to communicate a message can be helped by the DLN, but also people who can be available to explain topics with broad appeal that are willing to speak on those topics could be used in products like the one Alexander created on the X-43A.
"Our DLN can provide Dryden employees an outlet to give learning opportunities to the general public and upcoming scientists and engineers from a distance," he said.
The main DLN Web site is http://dln.nasa.gov/dln/, where there is a catalogue of the offerings that can be searched by topic and grade level.
For more information about the DLN, or to volunteer as a subject expert for future DLN segments, call Alexander at ext. 5818.