Teachers Take on New Technology in Summer Pilot Program
For Emery Atkinson, a Florida-based aerospace and science teacher, it is important that his students understand how their studies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can relate to the real world.

Sometimes making that connection with students takes more than just a well thought out lecture.

Teacher Joseph Herrington eats a frozen goldfish
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Teacher Joseph Herrington, a science teacher from the Boston area, eats a frozen goldfish during a tour at NASA Langley during his Aero-Sim internship. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

A new NASA pilot education project, the Simulation-Based Aerospace Engineering Teacher Professional Development Program, offered 16 middle and high school teachers from across the United States an up-close and intense look at how they can incorporate modeling and simulation -- or mod-sim -- into their classrooms to excite students about STEM.

During the two-week pilot project held July 19-30, eight teachers interned at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and eight teachers interned at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Teachers were split into teams and assigned projects ranging from understanding NASA's Launch Abort System to calculating trajectory optimization for iRobot's Roomba.

Technical mentors, scientists and engineers worked with the teachers, showing them how computer modeling and simulation are used to understand the behaviors of materials, structures and fluids, such as air, and to design innovative and improved flight vehicles and systems.

The educators were excited to learn how to use computer simulation and visualization tools to get their students to "see" how math, science and technology can relate to real life.

"We are introduced to resources here," said Atkinson who interned at NASA Langley. "This is vital from a teacher's standpoint. We are being given great information and told how to disseminate it. It brings NASA to the classroom."

Eight teachers attended a pilot internship program about simulation-based aerospace engineering

Eight teachers attended a pilot internship program about simulation-based aerospace engineering. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

In just two weeks, the teachers translated that knowledge into lesson plans and effective learning experiences for their students and presented their plans to one another via the NASA Digital Learning Network, a video-based network that connects the NASA centers to one another and to education institutions across the United States.

Sharon Welch, new business lead for education at NASA Langley, said the pilot program was designed to be an "intense learning experience" for the teachers and their schedule was "packed."

"We really weren't sure what the outcome would be," Welch said. "But, at the end of the two weeks, we were all very pleased with how the pilot turned out."

Technical mentor Steven Scotti, an engineer with NASA's Langley Research Center, said he was impressed with the "enthusiasm" of the teachers throughout the "grueling" two-week course. At the end of the internship, teachers were left with a better understanding of how to marry modeling and simulation with their lesson plans.

"I have a better understanding of how to integrate mod-sim into the curriculum without feeling like it's an "addition" -- instead it feels like it should be an integral and genuine part of learning," said Catherine Murray, a math teacher from Boston.

She continued with an analogy: "It's not just the sprinkle on top of the cookie, it's an ingredient."

Dynae Fullwood is an aerospace education specialist at NASA Langley who worked with the group of teachers. Fullwood said Murray's take on modeling and simulation is exactly what the internship is about.

"Our goal is to expose teachers to experiences that marry modeling and simulation with classroom lessons and resources, so that they return to their schools with greater knowledge and tools to foster the next generation of explorers," Fullwood said.

"The experience was awesome," said Carol McKinney, a high school math teacher from Florida. "I want to do more experiments in class and using computer models to teach kids is amazing. I mean, this is how NASA scientists and engineers learn, through modeling and simulation, so it makes sense for students to learn that way too."

For Atkinson, who worked on a mod-sim project about NASA's new escape system -- the launch abort system -- the fact that he can now explain to students how math skills helped developed a system that saves the lives of astronauts is extremely important.

"It becomes relevant to the students," he said. "For me as a teacher, this whole experience has been hugely positive."

Amy Johnson
NASA Langley Research Center