Students involved with the NASA STARS program work on projects, like launching a weather experiment, to use the skills they are developing in class and learn about professional careers where those skills are used. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) › View Larger Image
A select group of middle school students are seeing STARS.
Or more precisely, Cole Middle School students in Lancaster are participating in the Student Training and Advocacy for Professional and STEM Careers, or STARS. The program is aimed at providing opportunities and creating excitement for students in careers involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and professional careers.
Dryden engineers Brian Taylor and Brian Griffin designed STARS as part of a leadership and management program they were enrolled in called Foundations of Influence, Relationships, Success and Teamwork, or NASA FIRST. Taylor and Griffin learned about leadership and program management and then used what they learned to begin the NASA STARS program.
Taylor and Griffin worked with the Dryden Office of Education and tapped funds from the Summer of Innovation program for paying two teachers to conduct the program. Next, the men approached the Dryden Executive Leadership Team to ask for help with the costs for materials.
Brian Griffin works with Mackenzie Denzin on a hands-on project. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) › View Larger Image Taylor is familiar with working with young people. He helped re-vamp and energize Dryden's Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience, or INSPIRE, program in 2009 and 2010. His goal was to run the program like a project, in which he continued in a smaller role in 2011, where students would be responsible for roles on a flight project carried out on a remotely piloted aircraft. INSPIRE is a multi-tiered year-round program designed for high school students who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and careers.
A key difference between this program and other student programs is the five-month duration.
"I think it is important to work with students over time. Providing this program can give these kids a life experience more than equal to the cost (of setting it up). I think there is more potential to have an impact on them and their future (in a program like this)," Taylor said.
Cole Middle School has been a Dryden partner in the past and is considered a school that has disadvantaged students who can benefit from a boost in math and science education, Taylor said. That's why he and Griffin, along with Russ Billings of the Dryden Office of Education, approached the school to gauge interest in their idea. Teachers Mary Kruppe and Dorothy Smith stepped up to the challenge of screening student applications and selecting the 18 students who are included in the program.
Students attend two-hour sessions on Tuesdays, after school, for five months. That amounts to about 40 hours of interaction with each student, Taylor said.
The program emphasizes hands-on activities and the lives, motivations and careers of guest speakers. For example, they had Fran Houtas talk to them about her career as a meteorologist and they were able to launch a weather balloon, build weather instruments and conduct experiments with her.
Also, during the second module on GPS, Michelle Berger talked to students about what influenced her to pursue a STEM career. The students used math they were learning in school, along with handheld GPS receivers, to measure the athletic field.
Taylor and Griffin are currently packaging the program for expansion to the Antelope Valley and beyond. Depending on the program's success, the Los Angeles Unified School District has expressed interest, Taylor added. A key feature of the program is relating what students are learning in class to how those skills are used in careers.
Students completed a weather module in October and GPS course in November. The next module is set to start Feb. 7. The focus on the next three modules will include renewable energy, aeronautics and astronomy.
Taylor and Griffin provide the curriculum, but flexibility is built in for teachers to interpret the plans. The two Dryden employees attend the sessions to provide a helping hand during the activities.
Students are excited about the program.
"I learned all the different types of thermometers that are used in one machine that are attached to a weather balloon and that there are different kinds of air currents. I also was able to see different types of tools like infrared thermometers. In the GPS unit, I learned that GPS stands for global positioning system and that there are different types of satellites. The GPS (works) by getting the signal from the satellites," wrote Irvin Merine, a student.
For Taylor, it comes down to this: "We want them to learn about STEM and professional careers. We want to inspire them and show them that there are opportunities out there."