On a cool, dark night on a playground in New Jersey, students, parents and teachers peer through telescopes at clusters of stars, the planets and the moon. Inspired by a NASA workshop and co-hosted by the local amateur astronomy association, astronomy-themed family nights, or "star parties," are held several times a year at Dr. Albert Einstein Academy.

Students in a classroom raising their hands

Students at Dr. Albert Einstein Academy use NASA's Digital Learning Network to connect with experts at NASA centers and learn about NASA-related STEM topics. Image Credit: Dr. Albert Einstein Academy

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The academy's Science Instructional Coach, Tracy Espiritu, said star parties are one of the most successful initiatives to come out of the school’s involvement with the NASA Explorer School project.

"For many students and parents, star parties were their first opportunity to look through telescopes," Espiritu said. "Many were inspired to buy their own (telescopes) and start their new hobby of looking at the night sky. For many, the star parties sparked interest towards the night sky that had otherwise gone unappreciated."

Dr. Albert Einstein Academy in Elizabeth, N.J., was selected to the NASA Explorer Schools project in 2007. Since that time, teachers and students have taken advantage of many NASA opportunities including professional development workshops, student contests and challenges, interacting with NASA personnel, and access to NASA educational resources.

Espiritu said that as a result of the NES project, Einstein Academy students, teachers and parents are engaged more enthusiastically in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "Being a STEM-themed school, the NASA Explorer Schools project has provided us the element of real-world connection to all that we teach and learn," Espiritu said. "Students, teachers, parents and the community are most excited about the unique opportunities ... only available to our school because we are part of the NES family."

An example of those unique opportunities is the NASA educator workshops. At the workshops, experts share ideas with teachers for engaging students and the community in STEM content. Once back at school, workshop attendees share their experiences and knowledge with colleagues and implement many of the strategies and activities in their classrooms.

NASA's Digital Learning Network was one of the first NASA resources that was easily integrated into classroom lessons, Espiritu said. Using two-way video conferencing equipment, DLN events allow students to interact with NASA educators and representatives, thus enhancing or extending classroom lessons.

A student and his mother with their project display

Twenty-six families from Dr. Albert Einstein Academy participated in the NASA Engineering Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber in 2009. Image Credit: Dr. Albert Einstein Academy

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"The unique, engaging and inspiring topics coupled with conversing with NASA personnel make an impact in students' educational experiences," Espiritu said. "Teachers and students feel privileged to be able to experience this opportunity."

Now in their third year of the NES project, DLN events are a common occurrence at Einstein Academy. Students frequently connect with experts at NASA centers in Maryland, Ohio and Alabama to learn about humans in space, spaceflight and the solar system.

Einstein Academy students participate each year in NASA engineering design challenges and contests. Challenges align with the school's curriculum in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and architecture. The challenges also provide a structure for students to apply their knowledge to real-life problems. The school often involves families in NASA challenges. Last year, 26 families participated in the NASA Engineering Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber to design, build and evaluate a plant growth chamber suitable for growing plants on the moon.

NASA contests emphasize cross-curricular skills, Espiritu said, and enrich teacher lesson plans. Some of the NASA contests Einstein Academy students have participated in are Name the New Mars Rover, Buzz Lightyear Mission Patch, and Cassini Scientist for a Day.

The school holds an annual Einstein Math and Science Expo community event highlighting student projects and offering NASA and STEM-themed activities and career information. Every year approximately 200 to 400 parents, students and community members attend, volunteer and/or participate in the expo.

Students holding ropes and plastic pipes

As part of the spacesuit activity, students were challenged to perform a tethering task, wearing gloves that were bulky like spacesuit gloves, to demonstrate the difficulties astronauts face during spacewalks. Image Credit: Dr. Albert Einstein Academy

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Students' projects are highlighted also as part of the annual NASA Virtual Student Symposium and National Student Symposium. At both events, NASA Explorer School students present their projects to a panel of NASA experts. "Having to present to a NASA expert provides a new type of motivation in the students," Espiritu said. "They want to make sure they know what they are talking about in the presence of an expert -- a huge help for teachers!"

The academy's students have benefitted also through involvement in NASA's Aerospace Education Services Project, which motivates students through hands-on projects, classroom visits and lecture-demonstration presentations. In one special project, students studied spacesuits. NASA Aerospace Educator Chris Hartenstine, from NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, introduced students to the garments astronauts wear during different stages of their missions. Hartenstine explained the functionality and purpose of each layer of a spacesuit. Students were able to touch and see the various layers of materials that make up a spacesuit. With a simple model, Hartenstine demonstrated how the cooling and heating mechanism of a spacesuit functions.

The NASA Explorer Schools project is NASA's classroom-based gateway for middle and high school students from grades 4-12. The project offers authentic learning experiences designed around NASA's unique missions while promoting student engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics based on NASA's resources. The project provides students with a sense of relevance and involvement by linking STEM classroom topics to real-world NASA activities that inspire interest in STEM disciplines today, tomorrow and beyond.

Related Resources
NASA Explorer Schools Project   →
Digital Learning Network   →
NASA Aerospace Education Services Project
NASA Education
NASA Engineering Design Challenge: Plant Growth Chamber

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services