A Mind is a Wonderful Thing to Motivate
Inspiring young minds is at the heart of NASA's outreach education program. Engaging young males who are at risk is a special bonus.
This year, NASA kicked off a program to support President Barack Obama's "Educate to Innovate" initiative in order to boost interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education particularly for underrepresented students across the nation.
Education specialists based at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida had an opportunity to share their knowledge of the nation's space program with a group of young men who typically would not have a chance to learn about it.
The Brevard Group Treatment Home, or BGTH, a residential facility for boys in Brevard County, Fla., and a branch of the Center for Drug-Free Living, invited personnel to visit and provide space education to its students. An elite education team brought to the center attention-grabbing videos, demonstrations and hands-on learning activities. About 30 boys, ages 12 to 15, attended the event.
What made this day unique for NASA was the venue. BGTH is a low-risk residential program for male offenders that offer the boys a structured, therapeutic and nurturing homelike environment. With an average stay of four to six months, the students participate in classroom studies and projects, group therapy, behavior management, and recreational activities. The goal is to help transition these young people successfully back into the community once they have completed the program.
Yvonne Watson, language arts, reading and social science teacher, mentioned how proud she is of her students' accomplishments.
"We are seeing wonderful strides. We had a student who recently left (the program) whose entry level test for reading comprehension was about fifth grade and his exit comprehension with the reading plus program was 12th grade," Watson said. "We have a wonderful time at the center and we do what we need to do for the success of our students."
Kennedy's education specialists Lania Rosengren, Frank McDonald, Jessica Paglialonga and Chris Blair served up a program that kept the kids engaged, entertained and curious.
The excitement that filled the room was evident as Rosengren and McDonald asked for volunteers to be "vacuum wrapped" like the food available on the International Space Station and ride a makeshift "hovercraft." The kids were especially fascinated by the demonstration of how a sample thermal tile protects a space shuttle when super-heated.
Hands were constantly raised to ask questions and one could almost see the minds of these young men wanting to know more. But the fun didn't end there. Part of the education team's assortment of activities included hands-on projects that the boys became totally engrossed in. In one experiment, the youngsters donned gloves, similar in weight and bulk of the protective gloves the astronauts wear while in space, and were asked to perform small tasks and to try tying shoe laces -- not as easy as one might think.
Next up, Blair intrigued the boys with his presentation about the family of rockets that have lofted NASA's satellites into space to study Earth's environment, the sun and other planets in our solar system.
Blair explained to the youngsters about the dynamic properties of the rockets and what it takes to launch them with their payload up and out of Earth's gravity. After handing out tape and pre-shaped paper, the boys jumped into the project, forming a rocket's base by wrapping paper around a section of PVC pipe and then taping on the nose cone and finally the fins.
But there was more to the project than just forming the paper rockets. Blair took them outdoors and with longer connecting pieces of PVC pipe and a plastic bottle for ballast, the propulsion system was built and primed for launch.
Each young man was able to attach his rocket to the end of the pipe, give the plastic bottle a swift and heavy foot stomp -- and liftoff!
BGTH's Director Kerilynn Kelly-Moss was on hand throughout the two-day program. When asked about what she sees for the future she said, "If the kids can see potential in themselves from our program, that's all I'm asking for -- for them to think about something else that (they) can be, and the positive exposure to something else -- that's the future."
Todd Dixon, director of the Center for Drug-Free Living, also stopped by to observe the boys' participation in NASA's education program and he commented about how proud he is of the facility, staff and residents and the progress that's being made moving these boys in the right direction. He was appreciative that NASA was able to be a positive force in the youngsters' development and interest in science and space.
After the close of the event Rosengren and McDonald were brought to the boys' dormitory to say goodbye but not before asking them to recall five things they learned from the two days. "They kept raising their hands telling us the details of what they learned," said Rosengren. "We stood there in awe of everything they learned. It was not only touching, but it made me so proud of the boys. They have inspired me and have touched my heart. "
Kelly-Moss also let the education team know that their program was, in her words, "outstanding," and thanked NASA for making this experience possible for the center's students and is looking forward for a return visit in the near future.
Apparently, for NASA the feeling was mutual. Rosengren said, "I had an amazing time at the BGTH … it was the most amazing experience of my teaching career."
Elaine M. Marconi
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center