Reading, writing and rocket science

Learning: A local teacher has a blast at adult space camp - and says his students will benefit, too.

July 25, 2004|By Sarah Merkey | Sarah Merkey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As 36-year-old Howard Eakes sat in one of NASA's anti-gravity chairs, he realized the dream of the wide-eyed millions who, since its Kennedy-era development, have looked upon the space program in awe.

Eakes was training to be an astronaut.

He won't be blasting off into space anytime soon, but July 6 through July 11, Eakes, a fifth-grade teacher at Fountain Green Elementary School who also appears up to two days a week on the Harford Cable Network's live homework show, traveled to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., for the U.S. Space Academy for Educators Camp - in short, space camp.

Eakes, who was named Harford County teacher of the year in 2002, was one of four teachers across the nation chosen by Rockwell Collins Inc. to attend the Space Academy as part of the Rockwell Collins K-12 Partnership Program.

"It is an excellent example of business and school partnership," Eakes said, "because by their sponsoring of me, I'll in turn get students excited about the space program, which Rockwell Collins is a part of."

Rockwell Collins designs, maintains and produces aerospace and aviation communication equipment for both government and commercial customers, said spokesman Jeffery Moder. Since 1992, Rockwell Collins has sent 49 teachers to space camp at a cost of about $1,400 per person.

"Science and engineering are very important to our core business; therefore, we support science and engineering education," Moder said. "The engineers of tomorrow are the ones who are going to put a man on Mars or do the next great thing in space."

"Our country needs engineers, scientists, mathematicians," Eakes said. "You need somebody to light the fire, to get that spark going."

Eakes is the first teacher to be selected from outside the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area, where more than half of Rockwell Collins' 15,000 employees are based, Moder said. Teachers are nominated by Rockwell Collins employees - in Eakes' case, a parent of one of his former students who works at Rockwell Collins' White Marsh location.

Fifty-seven teachers, representing all grade levels and public and private schools, spent the week taking part in a variety of activities that Eakes said can be incorporated into the classroom. The teachers were housed in dorms at the University of Alabama, and Eakes will be writing a reflection paper to receive graduate credit from the university.

Rocket construction, not surprisingly, was a dominant activity. Divided into 13-member teams - Eakes' team was dubbed "Destiny" - the teachers built paper rockets launched with compressed air, bottle rockets launched with balloon power and Alka-Seltzer rockets.

Eakes said the rocket activities will fit into his curriculum. In years past, his students have launched balloon rockets and determined their average speed.

The live homework show is how Eakes feels he will best be able to share what he has learned. It is one of the reasons he thinks he was selected by Rockwell Collins for the sponsorship.

"I think they thought I'd be the perfect person to learn this stuff and share it through the show," Eakes said. He said he plans to teach a lesson on the history of the space program in a segment of the homework show.

"It was personally and professionally rewarding to work on this team," Eakes said. "We did lessons that teach the importance of teamwork; it was amazing that we carried it out with 13 personalities," he said.

Eakes' Team Destiny rode a 100-foot zip line from a tower down into a lake, simulating the experience of an ejecting shuttle pilot, and participated in an aviation shuttle challenge during which the teachers had to swim into a helicopter rescue basket.

Taking a break from the physical activities, Eakes and his team members simulated experiments taking place on the International Space Station, such as extracting the DNA from a strawberry and growing crystals - perfect crystals that can be created only in the low-gravity atmosphere found in space. Their growth is studied on the space station to create new medicines, Eakes said.

The teacher said he returned from his trip with a renewed enthusiasm for science and math. In addition, he came back to Harford County with a plethora of supplemental teaching materials in tow, such as NASA lesson plans, posters and models students can build in the classroom, which he also plans to share with his colleagues at Fountain Green Elementary.

"I'm hoping Fountain Green will have a space week where I can share ideas from space camp," Eakes said. "It's not just an opportunity for me; it's an opportunity for Fountain Green to benefit." In place of his usual after-school reptiles and amphibians program, Eakes said he might teach a space program for students.

Eakes said he teaches fifth grade, rather than specializing in math or science in a middle or high school, because he enjoys the younger students.

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