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Summer School for Young Researchers Explores Science of Space Travel

Science in the Summer 2018
Science in the Summer participants get a hands-on look at spacecraft materials. | Adam D. Cohen/AAAS

If you were an astronaut stranded on the moon, what supplies would you want to help you survive and reconnect with your fellow astronauts? Oxygen tanks? Inflatable life rafts? A box of matches?

“In space, you have to use oxygen,” one elementary school student offered. Gathering in groups of two and three, the young students worked together to sort cards with pictures of survival gear and place them in order from the most to least useful equipment. They selected the card depicting oxygen tanks for first place and cheered when their instructor shared that NASA experts agree with that placement.

The students were among the thousands around the country who explored the science of space this year as part of Science in the Summer, a free interactive science enrichment program aimed at second through sixth graders.

The program, founded and sponsored by pharmaceutical company GSK, was established in Philadelphia in the 1980s before expanding regionally and ultimately nationally in 2015 with the help of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. AAAS now manages the program in the Washington, D.C., area, where classes were held this past summer at 37 different libraries, museums and community centers in the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland, said Betty Calinger, senior project director at AAAS.

With programs now in 20 states and the District, Science in the Summer has a broader reach in combating the well-documented “summer slide” phenomenon — in which students, particularly those without access to enrichment activities, lose academic skills and knowledge during the long summer break, Calinger said.

The program, which focuses on a different theme or scientific discipline each year, also offers grade school children the opportunity for less formal, more interactive, more memorable small-group activities. The experiences are often unlike those ordinarily offered in traditional classrooms, according to Monica Padgett, who has been a Science in the Summer instructor since 2013. Padgett, who teaches high school biology and chemistry at a Baltimore high school, this year taught Science in the Summer at Little Falls Library in Montgomery County, Maryland.

For students who already have a love for science, Science in the Summer “gives them an outlet with which to explore that passion more,” Padgett said.

Among the hands-on activities included in the program was building rocket ships from film canisters, which involved adding a mixture of water and Alka-Seltzer to propel the tiny rockets up so high they bounced off the classroom ceiling.

Participants also learned about the challenges astronauts face — extreme cold, a lack of oxygen, tiny and fast-moving micro-asteroids — and how their multipurpose spacesuits provide numerous thin layers of material to protect them from such dangers. Donning their lab goggles for an experiment, the children used straws to shoot popcorn kernels at a sheet of tissue paper. Would the kernel ping off the paper or break through? What would happen if they added another sheet of tissue paper, then another? A flurry of activity revealed to the students that one thin layer might be vulnerable to “micro-asteroids,” but many thin layers would hold strong.

The activities allow students to experiment and sometimes fail, said Francis Lotz, who teaches fifth-grade math, science and social studies in Montgomery County, Maryland. A Science in the Summer veteran, Lotz taught a class this summer at the Laurel Historical Society in Prince George’s County, Maryland. After all, not every Alka-Seltzer rocket launched on the first try. “In the end, that success is so much greater, because they’ve worked for it,” he said.

Science in the Summer 2018
NASA engineer Dave Everett speaks to Science in the Summer participants at the Laurel Historical Society. | Adam D. Cohen/AAAS

The nationwide curriculum is developed by the Franklin Institute, a Philadelphia-based center of science education and research that includes a science museum. Local partners also contribute their own touches to the summer classwork and activities. The Laurel Historical Society, a longtime Science in the Summer partner, for instance, brought in Dave Everett, a NASA engineer and Laurel resident, for an extra day of learning.

Everett passed around strong-but-lightweight graphite composite that makes up spacecraft and showed images and videos from the Apollo missions he watched as a boy, sparking his own interest in space. He also told the children about his current work on the OSIRIS-REx mission, which launched in 2016 with the goal of bringing back samples from the Bennu asteroid in 2023. If successful, OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. spacecraft to gather asteroid samples.

As the project-systems engineer, Everett is in charge of all technical components of the entire system, including the spacecraft, the instruments and the ground systems. Before launching a spacecraft, “you need to make sure it works right the first time, because most of the time, you can’t go and fix it,” he told the kids.

Being a NASA engineer is a challenging job, but that is a good thing in Everett’s book — a lesson that he imparted to Science in the Summer participants. “That’s what makes my job fun. Think about your favorite video game. Do you play level one over and over?” he asked them. “You want a challenge,” which is true in school, too, Everett said.

Said Kelly Lovar, whose three daughters have participated in Science in the Summer, the program “invigorates my kids. They get excited about science.” Lovar, who homeschools her children, has found her daughters already have familiarity with scientific terms and concepts when they encounter them during the school year. The exposure helps them learn more.

Camille Sturdivant, an alumna of Science in the Summer, has seen similar benefits. Sturdivant, who is starting 10th grade in a science and technology program at her Greenbelt, Maryland, high school. After participating in Science in the Summer every year until aging out, she has spent the last few summers as a volunteer at Science in the Summer, handing out supplies and assisting the instructor.

Science in the Summer “helped me out with science class later, because I already had background knowledge,” she said. “It even helped me in high school.”

Sturdivant plans to study biology and genetics in college and go on to attend medical school. Science in the Summer, said Sturdivant, “showed me that I can help people using science.”

[Associated image: Andrea Korte/AAAS]