Launching Lessons

Challenger Learning Center sends 'Cmdr. Sue' to teach science through rocket building

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2006

Some Douglas kids had the chance to reach for the stars in school this week.

The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska sent a flight director to Gastineau Elementary School this week to teach third-, fourth- and fifth-graders about science and the wonders of outer space. The nonprofit education center in Kenai is one of 53 facilities built in honor of the astronauts who died in the explosion of the Challenger 51-L mission in 1986.

Susan "Commander Sue" Hawker spent four days at the elementary school this week teaching topics ranging from robotics to rocket building. On Thursday afternoon, Hawker, dressed in a blue astronaut's jump suit, gave Ben Kriegmont's fourth-grade class three lofty goals: learn about rocketry, build a rocket, launch a rocket.

"They're very fascinated by space flight," Hawker said. "I've been surprised by some of the facts that the kids have known."

After a brief lecture that touched on Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion, flight dynamics and launch protocol, the students were let loose to build air-propelled rockets out of construction paper and tape.

"They're always pretty interested in space, rockets and robots," Kriegmont said.

After each student had created their own rocket the class filed out to the playground and set up three impromptu launch pads made from bicycle pumps and PVC pipes. The students filled each launcher with 20 pounds per square inch of air and then the magic of space flight took over and the countdown began. "FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE, LAUNCH," they chanted in unison before the paper rockets soared across a baseball diamond to cheers and screams from the students.

"It's really cool and fun and everybody gets to have turns," said Cody Monette, whose rocket flew about 50 yards. "It's science and it's really interesting and it makes it fun for everybody."

The amazement of science and the wonder of space flight captured the attention of many of the students.

"We actually made rockets out of paper and they went far," said Brittany Ball.

Other students were a bit skeptical of the rockets' potential at first.

"It was kind of scientific because you didn't know if your rocket would go or not," said Aimee Tucker. "It went pretty far."

Kriegmont, who helped organize Challenger's visit, said the science program is a great way to engage students in science.

"As a classroom teacher - teaching reading writing and math - it's sometimes hard to find the time to prep a science lesson, especially one this intricate and detailed," he said. "So to have someone come in with all the materials and everything ready to go is just great."

Hawker said students who participate in the program are exposed to a great deal of scientific facts, processes and procedures over the course of the four instruction days. She taught a lesson about living in space lesson where they learned what it's like to be in a micro-gravity environment, used robotics kits to make functioning robots, and also made spectroscopes to study light.

"I have been having a great time down here," she said. "I've been very impressed with the students here and their behaviors this week."

Kriegmont said the lessons kept the students' on task all week.

"One of the things that I've seen is just a lot of cooperative group work and the tasks are so exciting that the kids are being very cooperative to get them done," he said.

"One thing that's really good about teamwork is you learn how to make more new friends and stuff," student Sheylin Harrison said.

The project was able to visit Juneau this week in part by a grant sponsored by Conoco Phillips. The education center has been providing similar programs in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Cordova and several villages in the bush this school year to expose more Alaska children to science.

"It's a nice program for us to get out there and see the kids," Hawker said.

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