Calling Home
Three students wearing gold and purple football jerseys

Students Anna Grace, Jacob and Alyssa wait to ask a question of astronauts on the space station. During the downlink, students watched the astronauts on two large screens. Image Credit: Dean Carothers/TTU Photo Services
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While on his recent mission to the International Space Station, astronaut Barry Wilmore had a long-distance question-and-answer session with students in his home state. The Tennessee native was the pilot on the STS-129 space shuttle mission to the space station, Nov. 16-27, 2009.

On Sunday, Nov. 22, astronauts fielded questions from students at Wilmore's alma mater, Tennessee Technological University, and area elementary, middle and high school students. Astronauts Leland Melvin and Nicole Stott also participated in the downlink.

Sally Pardue, with Tennessee Tech's Oakley STEM Center, said Wilmore's Tennessee heritage gave students a unique connection. Pardue is director of the university's Oakley Center for Teaching and Learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The center worked with NASA and U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon to host the event at Tennessee Tech.

Wilmore grew up in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., and earned a bachelor's and master's degree from Tennessee Tech. He also played football for Tech's Golden Eagles. "NASA is cool and astronauts are cool, but isn't it really cool (for students) that somebody just like them grew up in Tennessee and actually went to a college not so far away from home ... and here they are having a question and answer with him in space?" Pardue asked.

Barry Wilmore

On his first spaceflight, Tennessee native Barry Wilmore served as pilot on the STS-129 mission to the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA
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Students asked all three astronauts about how plants grow in space, how space affects astronauts' bodies, and how the shuttle works. One student asked Wilmore how being at Tennessee Tech prepared him to be an astronaut. "My high school, Mt. Juliet, and Tennessee Tech seriously set the foundation for the rest of my life," Wilmore said. "My time at Tech ... was the toughest part of my life, but I tell you what, I learned during that phase of my life that hard work is definitely beneficial in the long run. It was tough practicing (football) and studying continuously.

"I wouldn't be here, honestly, 250 or so miles above the Earth's surface, if it wasn't for the time I spent there at TTU and the lessons I learned there. I am eternally grateful to my school ... I'm grateful to Tennessee Tech, the university, the people, the instructors I had there. My life would have been totally different had it not been for them, and I'm grateful."

The questions asked during the downlink were selected through a student contest. The contest invited entries from Tennessee Tech students as well as K-12 students in the 14-county Upper Cumberland area of the state. Questions were chosen in four categories: K-4, 5-8, 9-12 and college. The top 30 questions in each category were selected, for a total of 120 semifinalists. Those students were invited to attend the live downlink. The top five questions in each category were asked during the event by the students who submitted them. Pardue said the contest received more than 700 entries, about half of which were in the K-4 category.

The STEM Center is following up with classrooms that participated in the contest by providing school visits, resources and professional development for teachers. "We didn't use all 700 questions, so we will go back into classrooms and talk with students," Pardue said. "We have a lot of programs that are directed at the teacher level, in terms of professional development, that make it exciting for them to be taking it back into the classroom. One of the best ways to reach K-12 students is through their teachers. It (the downlink) has really opened the door for continued partnership."

A group of students with congressmen and education officials

The winners of the student question contest wore Tennessee Tech football jerseys at the downlink event. Pictured with the winners, left to right, are Millard V. Oakley, member of TTU Foundation and benefactor of the Oakley STEM Center; U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis; U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon; and Dr. Robert Bell, President of Tennessee Tech University. Image Credit: Dean Carothers/TTU Photo Services
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Tennessee Tech senior Christina Richards was one of the students selected to ask a question during the downlink. Richards, an elementary education major, said she didn't know her university had an astronaut as part of its alumni. "I've never had anything like that happen to me before," she said after the event. "I taped it, and I'm going to show it to my (school) kids." After completing her degree, Richards hopes to teach middle school science.

Prior to the live downlink, on Nov. 18, the university held a symposium about the future of human spaceflight. The keynote speaker was Tom Williams, manager of the Propulsion Research & Technology Branch at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The event was attended by 115 Tennessee Tech students and student members of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, or AIAA, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, or ASME.

NASA's In-flight Education Downlinks support the agency's efforts to encourage students to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Facilitated by NASA's Teaching From Space Office, these events use the unique experience of human spaceflight to promote and enhance STEM education. Interested organizations should contact Teaching From Space at JSC-Teaching-From-Space@mail.nasa.gov for complete information and a proposal form, or visit the Teaching From Space Web site at http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/teachingfromspace/home/stu_main_tfs.html.

Related Resources
Astronaut Barry Wilmore Bio   →
STS-129 Mission
STS-129 Behind the Scenes Video: Determination
Teaching From Space
In-flight Education Downlinks
Bringing NASA Home
Aloha From Space

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services