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Moonwalk Memories | Schools see broad lessons
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Homepage for One Small Step. One Giant Leap. Man's first moonwalk, 40 years later

In July 1969, many kids watching a grainy image of a man walking on the moon had a similar thought - when I grow up, I want to be an astronaut.

Exactly 40 years later, the thought is the same, although the job description may be different.

"The students learn that NASA is not just about astronauts but also scientists, and that's what's so neat," said Marie Merritt, who teaches technology classes at Gainesville Elementary School. "We show them health an nutrition aspects, research, engineering, design and art - NASA touches so many fields."

Today, students may not be as immersed in learning about the space program as they were in 1969, but a handful of schools have the opportunity to work with NASA directly. The NASA Explorers Program, sponsored by NASA Education Enterprise in collaboration with the National Science Teachers Association, chooses 50 schools each year across the country to form three-year partnerships with NASA.

Gainesville Elementary was one of three Georgia schools chosen in 2003 to receive funds, host astronauts and conduct projects through Houston. Carol Sowers, a science teacher, filled out the grant proposal and helped to start the program in Gainesville.

"It was designed to encourage students to look at science, technology and math as they go through school and maybe lead them into a career in those fields," Sowers said.

Leland Melvin, astronaut and co-manager of NASA's Educator Astronaut Program, visited the school in 2004, telling the students how he first became interested in science when his mom gave him a chemistry set as a child. Melvin helped to deliver and install the European Space Agency's Columbus Laboratory when he flew on Atlantis in February 2008, the 24th shuttle mission to visit the International Space Station.

In July 2005, Sowers took a group of students to watch a shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center and a handful of students traveled to Dallas to meet with other NASA Explorers students.

"A lot of kids don't think science is cool, and this program has changed a lot of kids' images of what science is. We emphasize that every day, all the time," Sowers said. "Science involves iPods, computers, even people who do landscaping study erosion control and chemicals."

Ken Rockelein, who now works as a science teacher in Forsyth County, was engrossed in the NASA Explorers Program when he worked at Gainesville Elementary School a few years ago. He used demonstrations to explain rocketry, microgravity and Newton's laws of motion. During the first year of the program, he traveled to Kennedy Space Center for teacher training.

"It was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life," he said, explaining tours of the VAB, or vertical assembly building, originally built because the Apollo program's Saturn V rockets had to be constructed upright. "Just looking up you would start to get vertigo. They had to install a second ventilation building because it was starting to get cloud formations and rain inside."

The next year, Rockelein accompanied two students to Johnson Space Center in Houston to present projects."A lot of Explorers schools are middle schools, so they did a great job ... You wonder how to incorporate NASA into kindergarten classes, but you can incorporate space into learning numbers and scale it up from there. I was amazed at how third-graders could grasp microgravity," he said. "The whole school of kids was into it, and it's great because we were a school of minorities, poverty and second-language speakers."

Rockelein said he's transferred some lesson plans into his teaching in Forsyth but will always remember a videoconferencing exercise with NASA officials in West Virginia. The students received real-time satellite information about a hurricane and volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Teams had to coordinate data about each natural disaster and plan evacuation routes for the island's 13,000 residents.

"This historically really happened in 1996, and these fourth- and fifth-graders just shown," he said. "They had to map the hurricane's eye and windspeed, the volcano's lava flow, road conditions for evacuation and coordinate the logistics of getting the vehicles when, where and for how many people."

Even after the three-year partnership, Gainesville Elementary continues to host several science fair nights per year, work with robots, and do projects geared toward NASA, planets and astronauts.

"Fourth-graders do a PowerPoint on the planets and use current, factual information from the NASA Web site, third-graders graph the rotation of the planets and another class charts the history of NASA in a timeline," Merritt said. "That project details everything - how space exploration programs from different countries got started, the walk on the moon, all the planets, the whole space program."

The school used funds to create an outdoor classroom for environmental activities and an after-school explorers enrichment club.

"We do hands-on science activities to encourage heavy parent involvement," Sowers said. "Our guests have been people from Elachee Natural Science Center and Georgia Power, and they bring in telescopes and do scientific activities."
The science emphasis is continually important for the school, Merritt said.

"Because we're a second-language school mostly, we spend so much time on math and reading. It's important to tie in science in other areas," she said. "Kids love science, and we teach that it's a fun subject, not just learning facts. Kids love computers and doing research, and when they're having fun, they don't realize how much they are learning."

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