Pupils on a mission to learn

Space Academy: Middle-schoolers get an in-depth look at two NASA spacecraft slated to take photos of the sun in 2006.

October 31, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Alex Velasco, a sixth-grader at Magnolia Middle School in Joppa, says he has been interested in science and space for several years. He likes to watch shows about space exploration on television, and he takes books about space out of the library.

So Alex was thrilled to be part of his school's recent field trip to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel. "It's the best thing I've ever gone to," said the 11-year-old. "I want to go back as soon as possible."

Alex was one of about 100 pupils from four Maryland middle schools to attend the lab's Space Academy on Oct. 21. The Space Academy, offered in the fall and spring, gives Maryland middle-schoolers an in-depth look at one of APL's projects.

APL, in partnership with Comcast and the Discovery Networks, launched the academy in 2000. "It gets them excited about science," said Sandy Steeves, a Comcast spokeswoman, who said Comcast tries to choose schools from across the state. "This time, we had a couple of schools from Harford County. We've never had anyone from Harford county before."

The other school chosen were: Milton Somers Middle School in La Plata, Parkland Middle School in Rockville and Aberdeen Middle School in Aberdeen.

Bridget Quinn, a sixth-grade science teacher at Magnolia Middle, said she was able to take only 15 pupils, so she choose those she knew had an interest in space. Before the trip, she used lesson plans developed by Discovery Networks and APL so "the students had a base knowledge of what the mission was about," she said.

For this session of Space Academy, pupils learned about the STEREO Mission, or twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory. Two spacecraft, expected to be launched in early 2006, will take photos of the sun from different angles, providing three-dimensional images that are expected to help scientists learn about solar eruptions, which play a role in space weather.

"We try to focus it on current space missions that we're working on, which is one reason the STEREO Mission was highlighted," said Kristi Marren, an APL spokeswoman. "The whole day not only gives them a behind-the-scenes look at real NASA missions but also helps introduce them to real careers in space."

The Space Academy lasted from about 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The day began with a news conference, with pupils in the role of the media. Scientists involved with the mission spoke about their work, and pupils asked questions. Alex, the first pupil from his school to pose a query, asked whether gravity from the moon or Earth would pull the observatories off track. He was assured that wasn't likely.

Pupils then participated in several hands-on science projects. They learned about the clean-room suits that scientists wear while building spacecraft to keep the working environment sterile, and they tried on clean-room suits and even took them home. They shared a pizza lunch with the scientists, which gave them a chance to ask more questions. They were also given a tour of the facility.

"It was incredible, absolutely incredible," Quinn said of the day. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

While on the tour, the pupils got to see the two spacecraft under construction. "They were able to peek in through the windows," Marren said. With solar panels deployed, each ship is about the size of a school bus, she said. Without the panels, they are about the size of a teacher's desk.

For Alex, seeing the spacecraft was a highlight. "When I saw it, I was just amazed to actually be seeing a spacecraft that's going to be launched into space," he said.

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