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How I Spent Summer Break
Some of the best teachers from the U.S. and around the world spent part of their summer vacation launching rockets and simulating space missions.

Two teachers inside a mock-up of the space shuttle cockpit

International Space Camp participants prepare for launch inside the space shuttle trainer at Space Camp. Image Credit: U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Teachers from 50 states, four U.S. territories and 18 countries participated in the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's annual International Space Camp, July 23-29, 2010. NASA Education and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., support the annual event as part of the agency's goal to attract and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Marshall provides tuition assistance for educators from the center's K-12 service region, supplies education materials and speakers upon request, and participates in the opening ceremony, Parade of Nations and States.

Educators attending the camp are Teachers of the Year selected by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Campers participate in all aspects of the Space Camp experience -- simulators, trainers, simulated missions -- and take the experience and activities back to the classroom to share with students.

Iowa Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling said one of the best aspects of the Space Camp experience for her was the opportunity to be the learner. "It's so important for teachers to remember what it feels like to learn so that we can model our curiosity, our frustrations, our celebrations for our students," Wessling said. "There was an incredible sense of team building that permeated every aspect of the experience, and it's that sense of camaraderie that I will take back to my classroom and work to incorporate."

Wessling, a high school English teacher, is also the Council of Chief State School Officers' National Teacher of the Year. She added that the hands-on, interactive activities like those demonstrated at Space Camp are relevant in the classroom because they make learning come alive. "There's this sense, in (a) hands-on experience, that you don't just understand or learn, but you feel the experience in a way that inspires and makes you curious for more," Wessling said. "This reminds us as teachers how important it is to incorporate many different learning styles into the fabric of our instruction."

A teacher preparing to launch a rocket

As part of the Space Camp activities, educators launched rockets. Image Credit: U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Missouri Teacher of the Year Susanne Mitko said a highlight of the experience for her was a talk by Ed Buckbee, first director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and founder of U.S. Space Camp. "My gestalt moment came during Ed Buckbee's presentation and then solidified itself while reading his book on the flight home," said the middle school social studies teacher. "I use events in history to teach students how to live their lives today. NASA's innovation and efficiency in the 1960s was truly amazing. From NASA we learn the importance of open communications between all levels, the power of focusing on a single goal, and the need for bravery and risk tempered with common sense."

Mitko said her Space Camp experiences were a good reminder to teachers that learning is an active process. "If we want our students to be as fully engaged as the educators at Space Camp, we must emulate that style of instruction," Mitko said. "Students love and remember lessons that involve inquiry, problem solving and hands-on activities."

Tennessee Teacher of the Year Patty Kiddy said the week's activities were perfect for use with her first-graders. Interactive and hands-on activities allow students to take ownership of their own learning, she said.

"They become part of the learning process rather than merely being a spectator," said Kiddy, who is currently in her 37th year as a first-grade teacher. "When students are responsible for their own learning through hands-on activities, they feel pride in their accomplishment and have a tendency to remember the material more adequately. ... Hands-on activities create less of a dependency on the teacher and more of a sense of inquiry through experiences with materials, objects and exploration.

"Although students remember most or at least part of what the teacher states through lecture, using manipulatives supports learning that is functional and allows the students to become independent learners through inquiry."

Four people pretending to float in microgravity

A team of teachers work hard in the Space Hab at Space Camp. Image Credit: U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Back at school now, Kiddy plans to add centers for science to develop students' critical thinking skills and explore scientific ideas. "The experience at Space Camp totally changed my life," Kiddy said. "Not being one myself to tread unknown waters, I found myself totally enthralled in the activities and so excited to return to school to share ideas with my peers and students."

In addition to training for and carrying out simulated space missions, educators participated in workshops about living and working in space and the exploration of Mars. They attended two NASA-developed workshops on thermal protection and rocketry, and they built and launched model rockets. The week's guest speakers included space shuttle astronauts Robert "Hoot" Gibson and Story Musgrave; Grace Corrigan, mother of Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe; and Homer Hickam, former NASA engineer and author of "Rocket Boys."

Related Resources:
> U.S. Space & Rocket Center   →
> National Teacher of the Year Program   →
> Council of Chief State School Officers   →
> NASA Education
> NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services