NASA’s one-year space experiment opens rich possibilities for teachers

This morning was the launch of the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft, carrying 3 astronauts. There are two Russian cosmonauts, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, and US astronaut Scott Kelly.

They will spend one year on the International Space Station! This will be the longest stay in space. NASA 'Star Wars' Expedition 45 Poster

To mark this momentous step – a step toward a human mission to Mars –NASA released this poster.

Scott Kelly’s twin brother, Mark will be part of a long-term study by NASA. Mark is a veteran astronaut, and the husband of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

Given NASA’s sense of humor, I could see a lot of possibilities down the line, making science seem a lot more fun, and accessible. I am already planning a Photoshop class around this. Stay tuned!

There are plenty of Ed-Tech & STEM lessons we could build around this experiment. Such as:

Data collection. A class could monitor and collect data generated by NASA on this experiment, and generate hypotheses, charts, reports. They have already begun posting some ideas here.


Math/International Space Station report. The ‘habitable volume’ on the ISS is 13,696 cubic feet. How does that translate into cubic meters? Or in dimensions, what is its approximate size in terms of square feet?


Digital Storytelling/Video Editing. NASA has released B-roll of the ISS. I would love to get students to create a story using this footage, and some video they shoot. Perhaps do a fictional story of what they might do when (not “if”) they work for NASA!

ISS Orbit path


Plotting the orbit of ISS. I subscribe to ‘station tracker’ that send me a text message as to when the ISS passes over my city in Arizona. They could do so here, and get updates via email. Using this kind of data, students could learn not just about space, but also about compass directions, and use protractors and related math skills.

Testing Lino – Padlet-like Content ‘Wall’ for Students

This Lab is all about software and hardware, and how best students could use existing and emerging tools.
So I just began testing out a service called Lino (www.linoit.comto create a new ‘wall’ to support lessons in my class.

I have used Padlet, but for some reason there is a glitch on the new Windows 8 computers.

The first test is for a class on Book Trailers – a way to combine script writing, and microphone use with creating a promotional ‘trailer’ for a book. This is what it will look like – more student resources will be added.

This could become a lesson in itself, for content gathering and teaching how embed codes work.

Students could ‘curate’ facts, pictures, sounds, music tracks, video and slide decks to support work in social studies, science, math or robotics.

Starlab, such a gift to students

Yesterday, at Salt River Elementary School, our students got to experience astronomy in a whole new way. We had StarLab here for two days.

It’s impossible for any kid to sit out this lab!

StarLab_SREThis 2-day experience was made possible through ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.  (Don’t I sound like a line from NPR!) Translated: We have some really smart, passionate post-doc students working with StarLab to conduct 8 sessions each day.

Two things StarLab struck me about bringing an inflatable planetarium to a school.

  • This is what the whole ‘pop-up’ phenomenon has taken after. If you’ve not heard, there’s a new fascination with ‘pop-up agencies’ and pop-up marketing booths at events such as South By Southwest.
  • The notion that planet Earth is so tiny when compared to the universe, and how much in science is left to be discovered.

For students the latter could be a powerful catalyst, incentivizing them (even wide-eyed first graders) to consider a career in the sciences.

As for the former, just the fact that you could view galaxies and constellations in a portable space like this, smashes that stereotype that science is boring, and/or hard.

New Class encourages engagement, conversations

Over spring break I had my class reconfigured.

It’s been eight months since I took up the position of teaching computers and technology at Salt River Elementary School.

Angelo Fernando

Old Configuration

The first thing that struck me was how inadequate the classroom experience was, (left) with computers facing each other and sometimes, the teacher.

We know from research what engaged learning involves.

Angelo Fernando - SRPMIC

New Configuration

The new configuration, as you can see here (right) is, or course, conference-style.

I  write about and speak out about engagement and conversations, so this is more than an experiment. This is how young people live – in constant communication and engagement. We are used to habit of keeping students quiet –to zip it up and listen. This doesn’t work for me, and what I teach.

I also teach robotics, as I have mentioned before. The whole thrust in robotics is teamwork and collaboration. Therefore the large robotics table, dead center in my classroom, is on purpose. When not used as a robotics table, it is the demo area for science, technology and engineering – for conversations!

“Alone Together” Vs Group Activity

I’m just completing a fantastic book titled, Alone Together.

The title, while it gives you a sense of our connectedness –and isolation– does not tell you the other half of the analysis Sherry Turkle makes.

I thought of this as a jumping off point for this post because of two things that happened this week.

The first was a class I began on Simple Machines, for 1st graders. They love coming to my lab and trying to get their hands on robots and wires and such. So I decided to take a break from talking computers and introduce some concepts of what makes machines work, what simple machines are part of more complex ones.

I broke them up into three groups, and after a short introduction on three different technologies, gave them a handful of parts and got them to build a machine with wheels. I left the specs open, deliberately. I even randomly left out a few components. Their task was to problem-solve and build a machine in limited time.

Within 10 minutes I had one group complete the task. I then upped the challenge adding a new piece, a lever, and asked them to upgrade their machine. Within 8 minutes, done!

It showed me that the urge to collaborate and problem solving for the common good is not on its way out as some have theorized. With the advent of personal and personalized everything, young people can and will  operate in groups; we cannot give up on them.

The second, was a conversation I had with a new teacher, who commented on the challenge of teaching students how to express themselves in a peer-to-peer setting. They are so used to communicating online, she said, that they seem to not have the right social skills to do it in real life settings.

Students come to my computer and technology lab to connect and to engage with knowledge ‘out there’. But that should not come at the expense of engaging with the those in the same room.

Turkle makes a distinction between the ‘ties that occupy’ vs the ‘ties that bind’.  Education is beginning to experiment with distance learning models, to help students engage with the other. Fine with me –and I do take my students into distance-learning events– as long as we put an emphasis on collaboration, not pre-occupation.

Inviting ‘Intel inside’ class

The ‘open’ classroom is often discussed as synonymous with online access. But I like to think of my class as being open in another way –bringing in professionals from the outside world.

Intel's Don WildeI’m particularly lucky, with two mentors who come in on a weekly basis to assist me in robotics: Don Wilde from Intel, and Bill Johnson from Scottsdale Community college. We have an open door policy, literally, in our school for getting experts like them.

I have been following Intel’s push to put science high on the agenda, especially for K-12 education. From former Intel Chairman Craig Barrett’s investment in talent and capital with the Basis charter schools, to its involvement in S-T-E-M-related work.

To get back to Don. Last evening, as this picture shows, he talked to them about programming, specifically the principle of  DRY — ‘Don’t Repeat Yourself‘! He showed them how to use the My Block to create loops and variables. Serious stuff. Some would think this is way above the heads of a 4th or 5th grader. To which I counter, it’s about time we stopped dumbing down our content in our curricula –a la Basis. (I happen to tutor two children from Basis, so I know a thing or two about their tough grading standards and how they challenge students.)

To wrap up the class, I asked my students to surprise Don with a project I had thrown at them. I divvied them up into two three teams and got them to build three complex bots: A Voice-controlled robot, a mini Rover, and a Spider.  I left him to judge the best presentation on how they problem solved the build-out and programming.

If science education is lacking one thing, it is making it relevant to real world problem solving. More on this  and the 3 bots in another post.

Mic Check: Teaching the science of Sound

This week I’m teaching 1st graders what sound ‘looks’ like.

I don’t think most elementary school students stop to consider what sound really involves, whenever they download an MP3 file, or speak into a cordless microphone. (We teachers use simple cordless mics in class, and I occasionally hand off the mic to a student.)

One way is to show students what a sound wave is, and describe frequency and pitch. But how to turn the theory into something practical? I thought about this and began to use four different types of speaker-mic combinations to record something in class.

Four technologies

1. I start with the one device any young person could relate to – a cell phone. The mic is often hidden, but it picks up a lot. Some phones have a recording feature which is great.

2. The lanyard microphone in class. No recording feature, but it gives us an opportunity to talk about how the sound wave travels, wirelessly, across the room and gets amplified by the speaker.

3. A pocket digital recorder. I always carry one around in a satchel, from my podcasting days. I do a quick demo (10 seconds max!) with a student – usually the one who is disruptive, or… the exemplary listener! Gives me an opportunity to talk of why the recorded voice sounds tinny, but crisp.

Microphone - Dynex4. Finally, the old corded microphone. Funny how something slightly ‘old-school,’ with a very long cord nonetheless, amazes them. I show them how it works with a PC, using the very rudimentary Windows recorder. If you could download Audacity, that would open up a whole new sidebar discussion on digital dashboards…

In the next 15 minutes I record each of the 18 students, and if we have time playback their voices.

Next week I’m going to let them come up with a basic script, and read it as if they were reading a news story. There’s something about sitting a digitally saturated kid in front of a corded goose-neck microphone that gets fired up about the science of sound.

If you like to try this, depending on the grade level, you could supplement it with these steps:

  • Video the session from start to finish, so it could be used as a tutorial for another class.
  • Add a writing component. Get the class to work on a short (3-minute would suffice) ‘radio play’ with basic sound effects. I know plenty of places where to find podsafe music and sound effects. Now look at the wave forms for different sounds. Horses hooves, baby crying, door creaking, a cough…
  • Play back each skit on Audacity, and get them to see how they might combine sounds. Adjust the pitch, and frequency, so the sound effect sounds are enhanced, and even funny!

Sometimes, being a S-T-E-M focused class,  I wish I could have a 90-minute class, instead of a mere 40 minute segment. But hey, they’ve got to get to the other  Specials – like Music!