The two young students intently surveyed their surroundings before consulting one another.
“Do you think it’s too windy?” The young girl was nervous.
“No, the weather is perfect.” The young boy was confident.
“But, the wings may be too light. I’m not sure we cut them at the proper angle and used enough glue for these conditions.” The young girl was still nervous.
“Come on! We measured it, weighed it, studied the other models, and followed all the directions. There’s only one way to find out. Let’s get it in the air!” The young boy was getting a bit anxious.
“Team Four,” the counselor loudly announced. “Your turn.”
“That’s us,” the young boy yelled. Turning to his nervous partner, he was more than ready. “Don’t worry. This bad boy is going higher than anything the old campers launched.”
“Three . . . Two . . . .” The gallery was counting down in unison. When they heard “One,” the two young campers pushed a bright red button marked “Lift Off.” The model rocket went straight up, into a clear blue sky with a slight breeze.
“Wow,” was the only word that passed the young girl’s lips.
“Told you it’d go high,” the young boy shouted. “Our rocket is the best! Let’s catch it coming down.”
I smiled as I listened to this conversation, and tried not to be offended by the “old campers” reference. We weren’t really that old. Or maybe we were. Hundreds of students attend International Space Camp at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, each summer. So it is a bit unusual to see some adult campers. But, there we were. Seventy-four teachers from each state and around the world were spending the week at camp.
As a member of Team Kibo, I worked closely with fifteen of my educator colleagues. Just like the younger campers, we were stretched in many new ways. Besides learning how to adapt to a hot, humid southern summer, we were immersed in a world of wonder, curiosity, and exploration. Over seven days, I had the opportunity to pilot a shuttle mission into space, walk on the moon, take command of mission control, survive a helicopter rescue mission after being submerged in a lake, design and build a thermo-dynamic contraption to protect shuttle foam from melting, experience weightless travel, and launch our own model rockets. And, I have the official blue flight suit to prove it.
There were also opportunities to hear from several inspirational guest speakers including Grace Corrigan (Christa McAuliffe’s mother), Astronaut Story Musgrave, and Homer Hickem (author of Rocket Boys).
Throughout the week, I was reminded again and again about the importance of authentic learning experiences that help students expand their horizons. Out at the launch pad, the power of the hands-on experience was clearly evident. By having the opportunity to analyze the physics of flight, study the dynamics of a flight path, discuss the mathematics of optimal height, and then test it all with an actual model rocket, life-long learners filled with wonder were being created.
Space Camp embodies a culture of hands-on learning that we need to foster in our classrooms every day. As her mother told a room full of teachers, Christa McAuliffe “was a teacher who believed in the educational value of direct experience.”
As a teacher, I strive to provide my students with that direct experience. I try to create lesson plans that include real opportunities for hands-on learning where my students will be pushed in new directions and forced to face new challenges. This type of learning nurtures a sense of curiosity and innovativeness that goes well beyond textbooks and exams.
Forty-eight years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a bold proclamation:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.
To me, teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s more important than that. To paraphrase President Kennedy, I teach not because it is easy, but because it is hard. I teach because the challenge of providing each of my students with a quality education, although it requires the best of my energies and skills, is one that I am willing to accept and not one that I am willing to postpone. In order to meet this challenge, however, we need to expand our students’ experiences. Space may be the “final frontier,” but there are plenty of other frontiers right outside our classroom doors that are waiting to be discovered.