Kingston Catholic kids connect with NASA to explore science

Students Fiona Zajac and William Wright work on an experiment.

Students Fiona Zajac and William Wright work on an experiment.

Believe it … or not? Kingston Catholic School opens a window to space every single day.  In fact, Principal Jill Albert communicates regularly with NASA and students are helping to explore the impact of zero gravity on osteoporosis through studying the development stages of butterflies. Believe it … Or not?

Believe it. Thanks to the school’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Education Coalition’s curriculum, Kingston Catholic has an education partnership with the agency that brought us the moon landings, called NASA CONNECT. Using technology already found in most classrooms such as computers and smart boards, the kids are able to see astronauts in the International Space Station and ask questions in a text box for the astronauts to answer, explained Albert. “We have been able to dive in with two feet into what NASA has to offer,” she said. All grades are able to differently explore and apply disciplines of sciences, math, reading, writing and more thanks to the programming, even including the pre-K kids.

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Albert said the kids were most intrigued when chatting with the female astronauts, whose hair stands on end in a zero-gravity environment. “It led to a round of questions on the daily living questions, like what they eat,” said Albert. “It’s such an amazing window to have open in your classroom.”

First-grade teacher Sandra Heaney has been working with her first grade students to help NASA develop crucial “ray-shielding” materials. “Astronauts are not protected from the sun’s radiation,” explained Heaney. (The sun puts out a lot more than just light, and cosmic rays permeate the universe. It’s not an issue for us here on Earth due to our planet’s radiation-blocking magnetic field, but it’s a huge issue once you get into space.) “Their space vehicles have protection, but it’s limited and they are looking for ways to be better protected.” And so the class has been testing various materials such as tissue paper, copy paper, card stock and construction paper with flashlights for permeability, making predictions, and then weighing the successful materials, “because in space, the weight of the material is going to be a very important factor,” added Heaney. (Things are weightless in space, but they have to be launched from Earth to get there and in rocket science, every gram counts.) They then bring their findings to the fourth-graders, who then chart and plot the data with which to report back to NASA. The astronauts take the students’ names and data up to space with them for consideration, said Heaney.

Heaney said math, science and other typical curriculum suddenly become very relevant to students in this venue. Linear equations make sense, and even become interdisciplinary, being contextually applied all at once. “That’s what so cool,” said Heaney. “This has real-life implications. It seems so simple, but it’s not. NASA needs this information, and uses it to possibly extend the number and length of trips.”

Heaney said that she runs an after-school enrichment program to support the NASA work, such as constructing a marble boat-float. They then learn how to analyze the different materials to keep the boat afloat.

Inspiring a love of science

Patty Balcanoff’s seventh-grade class watched a video on the four levels of sonic speed, and then built their own spacecraft made of giant straws and folded paper wings, jet-propelled by inflated balloons along a string. An excited buzz of kids worked on problems; measuring, coloring, folding, constructing, learning filled the classroom. The kids measured the different balloons, made calculations based on various lengths used of string, measured the best efficiency ratios of different-sized balloons. They constructed their own linear equations using the ratio of distance over time to determine the miles per hour for the most efficient design of their own rockets. Later, the kids graphed the various times for each rocket event with the differing variables, like balloon sizes. One balloon suddenly popped mid-inflation. Balcanoff announced, “I think we just experienced a sonic boom!”

“I tell my mom I will be needing math and science to be a rocket scientist!” declared seventh-grader Alexis Butler, 12. “I think this is interesting. You can connect math to anything. Math is my favorite subject. I see how this connects math with science because we are doing linear equations. I like the rockets and stuff. It’s cool.”

The school’s upcoming project with NASA has both students and teachers aflutter.

Painted lady butterflies will pupate in microgravity from larvae to butterflies. Kingston Catholic students will build a butterfly habitat in their classrooms trying to replicate the structure and conditions of the “in-flight” habitat aboard the International Space Station, said Balcanoff. “The kids will use the same butterfly larvae and food supply used in both the microgravity and ground control experiments, students follow the larva to pupa stage of the butterfly life cycle,” said Balcanoff. “The students will, access photos of the space based activity via the Orion’s Quest website. Students will analyze these photos, compare them with classroom outcomes and submit their data to the principal investigator.”

The purpose of the study is not just about the life cycle of the butterfly, but also to learn about osteoporosis. According to Balcanoff and Heaney, astronauts face severe bone density loss in space and must exercise two hours per day to prevent it.  Butterflies have exoskeletons, and Balcanoff speculated they would be correlating findings of their classroom butterfly study with the exoskeletons of those in space.

Samantha LaBarbera, 12, enjoyed the personal satisfaction of working on the NASA-related projects, particularly the hands-on stuff. “I like the creativity of it versus sitting in a classroom just learning about it,” she said. The kids all agreed they loved connecting with actual astronauts.

William Wright, 12, said he digs the experiments, as he stretched a balloon out between his hands. “It’s more interactive and different than in a normal classroom,” he said. “It’s more exciting this way.”

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