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NASA Workshop Gives Teachers Powerful Classroom Tools
By the time he reached sixth grade, Damian Simmons knew he was going to be a science teacher. So, when NASA offered educators an opportunity to fly on the space shuttle in the 1980s, he applied even though he was still a senior in high school.

"I got a very polite letter from the agency thanking me for applying and explaining that I was too young," he said.

Simmons at workshopNearly two decades later, in 2003, NASA sent Simmons a follow-up letter -- this time inviting him to apply for the Educator Astronaut Program. Now well within the age-limits, he jumped at the chance.

"I got my recommendations and filled out the application right away," he said.

Simmons was one of 18 Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers (NEAT) from around the Midwest who recently spent a week attending tours and workshops at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Image right: Teachers Damian Simmons (front) and Cindy Hasselbring attach solar panels to their miniature solar cars. Credit: NASA

NEAT was founded in 2003 as a result of the overwhelming response to the Educator Astronaut program. While only three applicants were selected as astronaut candidates, 200 finalists received superior marks on their applications and became members of NEAT. These enthusiastic teachers share their knowledge about NASA research in their classrooms and communities.

In addition to touring some of NASA Glenn's state-of-the-art laboratories, the teachers learned about the center's unique expertise in power generation. They even picked engineers' brains about their work on power supplies ranging from fuel cells to Stirling engines.

"Whenever you get to talk to the engineers it's interesting, because you get a first-hand look at what they do," said Ellen Van Pay, who teaches fifth-grade science in Green Bay, Wisconsin. "I like to take that information back to my students because we're not just teaching them science; we're teaching them to be productive members of society."

Teachers race solar carsImage left: Ellen Van Pay takes photos as her fellow teachers race their solar cars down a hallway at NASA's Glenn Research Center. Credit: NASA

The workshops included hands-on activities, such as building and racing miniature solar cell and fuel cell cars, conducting experiments with a Stirling engine that runs on the heat of a warm hand, building and testing small wind turbines, and building robots controlled by calculators.

Simmons, who now teaches Advanced Placement Physics at an Illinois high school, was looking forward to trying these activities with his students.

"I'm taking home lessons and examples that you can't find in textbooks," Simmons said. "When my students see the real-world applications of physics, I hope it will lead them to pursue careers in engineering."

Jan Wittry (SGT, Inc.)