Persistence and Teamwork
Steve Knighton, Roger Hathaway and Jeanne Finstein pose for a photograph

NASA's Langley Research Center's Chief of Education Roger Hathaway (right) stands with Piedmont Administrator Steve Knighton (left) and Jeanne Finstein (center), keynote speaker for the school's family night event. Finstein works with the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. Image Credit: NASA

The next generation of explorers will live in places never before inhabited by humans. Their destination: the moon, Mars -- and beyond.

Who are these great explorers? Right now, they are elementary and middle school students with endless possibilities for adventure.

NASA has accepted the challenge to inspire and prepare the future workforce for those adventures. For the 2007-08 school year, 25 elementary and middle schools across the nation became NASA Explorer Schools. NES is a three-year educational partnership with NASA that provides schools with exciting learning opportunities, including downlinks through the Digital Learning Network, hands-on NASA activities, and interactions with NASA scientists, astronauts and engineers.

"We're looking for new experiences for our students," said Ronald Duerring, superintendent of Kanawha County Schools in West Virginia, at Piedmont Elementary's recent NASA Explorer Schools family night. "When you take a look at the objectives -- to increase awareness in math, science, technology, engineering and geography -- what better program could we ask for our students to be exposed to?"

The schools are selected through a competitive process and partnered with NASA centers across the country. NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., brought four new schools on board this year -- St. Stephen Elementary, St. Stephen, S.C.; Piedmont Elementary, Charleston, W. Va.; John B. Cary Elementary, Richmond, Va.; and Lebanon Middle, Lebanon, Ky.

A large group of students standing outside, holding brightly colored balloons

Students at Piedmont Elementary get ready to release their balloons. Piedmont had a school-wide "balloon launch" in honor of the NASA Explorer Schools kickoff. Image Credit: NASA

The Langley Research Center helped the schools launch the new partnerships in December by visiting each school, with agency officials and astronauts joining the celebration.

"I started out as an engineer at NASA, and I think it's one of the most fun jobs in the world," said Cindy Lee, Langley associate director, to the students of John B. Cary Elementary. "And maybe some of you will be engineers at NASA when you grow up and be the next generation of explorers."

The kickoffs began with students filing into the assembly room, barely containing their excitement. The room darkened, and the NASA Explorer Schools video set the stage. As students saw rockets, the Orion spacecraft, the moon, and Mars, their eyes lit up, and excited cheers rang throughout the auditorium.

Former astronaut Roger Crouch interacted with students at St. Stephen Elementary and Lebanon Middle School; former astronaut Ken Cameron, at John B. Cary Elementary; and Dynae Fullwood, aerospace education specialist at Langley, with the students at Piedmont Elementary School.

"What is NASA?" asked Fullwood. "National ... Aeronautics ... and Space ... Administration!" the students responded, with strong, enthusiastic voices and hand motions they were taught to help remember each word.

Astronauts and agency officials posed thought-provoking questions, including, "What does it take to be an explorer?" and "How many of you would like to go to Mars?" At the latter question, nearly every student's hand shot straight into the air.

Two girls stand at a table as former astronaut Roger Crouch autographs his picture

Former astronaut Roger Crouch autographs his picture for students at St. Stephen Elementary School. Image Credit: NASA

The NASA visitors were not the only ones asking the questions. Students at the different schools quizzed the astronauts about things everybody wonders about. "What kind of food do you eat?" "Were there any aftereffects when you returned from space?" "What was it like living on the shuttle?" The answers not only satisfied students' curiosity and their thirst for knowledge, but also imparted important understanding of the exciting rewards that lie ahead for those students who dream, work and persist towards a space exploration career.

Persistence and teamwork were resounding themes in all four kickoffs.

Former astronaut Crouch shared with the students an example of persistence from his own life experience. Because he is color blind, he faced many challenges in accomplishing his dream of becoming an astronaut.

"Growing up, I decided I wanted to be an explorer in space," said Crouch to the students of Lebanon Middle. "After about 17 years of applying to be an astronaut, I hadn’t heard a thing because I was color blind. When I was 40 years old, I found out about payload specialists."

A payload specialist is an astronaut who works in the physical or life sciences or as a technician skilled in operating shuttle-unique equipment.

"I was 56 years old when I finally got to be an astronaut," said Crouch. "So, the moral of the story is never give up."

Since the launch of the partnerships, educators have already begun to see differences in the students.

"Two students told me that they wanted to be astronauts," said Renee Murray, St. Stephen Elementary School teacher.

"Another student brought me some paperwork that needed to be filled out. While she waited, she told me she wanted to be an artist and an astronaut; however, she had a plan. First, she would be an astronaut and later an artist. All three of the students were first- and second-graders. According to NASA's goals, those students would be the right age to make their dreams come true."

Related Resources
NASA Education Web site   →
NASA Explorer Schools   →
NASA Digital Learning Network   →
NASA Aerospace Education Services Project
Former Astronaut Roger Crouch's Biography   →
Former Astronaut Ken Cameron's Biography   →

Emily Sturgill/LaRC