STEM programming with NASA!

Once again, we’re having student volunteers blog programs of interest from the ALA Annual Conference. This time, Nicole Helregel covers “Creating Out-of-This-World Children’s Programs with NASA Materials,” held on Sunday, June 30, at 8:30 a.m.

Space is always a hot topic with children; astronomy is a fun, accessible way to connect children’s natural curiosity about our world and universe to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. In an ALA 2013 program, “Creating Out-of-This-World Children’s Programs with NASA Materials,” Eve Halligan and Andy Shaner, representatives from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, discussed the Explore program, which is designed to engage children in space and planetary science outside the classroom. Explore incorporates a number of different activities and hands-on experiencesto inspire children to think creatively about the challenges that scientists face every day.

The program was started in 1998 and eventually received National Science Foundation funding to develop a number of modules that can be used in libraries, community centers, and anywhere that outreach activities take place. All of the modules have been tested and vetted by librarians and scientists to ensure accuracy, safety, and fun! The module that Halligan and Shaner presented at ALA 2013 was Explore: Life on Mars? The program centers on the study of astrobiology, the search for life in the universe, with a specific focus on Mars. The program comes complete with nine hands-on activities, scientist trading cards, and sets of instructions and resources to facilitate learning and engagement.

Halligan and Shaner led us through some of the fun-filled Life on Mars? activities. The first activity was called “Searching for Life.” We started by making a list of different forms of “life,” and then began brainstorming ideas about what defines “life” or something that is “living.” We then used our group definition during the demonstration/lab. The lab involved three cups, labeled A, B, and C. Each seemed to contain sand. When water was added to each, we observed the reactions and had a conversation about whether or not we could guess if each individual cup contained life or something living. Answer: cup A had a sand/sugar mix, cup B had sand/sugar and seltzer tablets, and cup C had sand/sugar and yeast. So, while cup B fizzed and bubbled, it eventually dissipated, while cup C frothed and foamed continuously. This activity highlights some of the differences between chemical reactions and biological living organisms, which is an important distinction when searching for life on Mars. It also challenges kids to think critically about the accepted “truths” that are established in school and to break down their understanding into fundamental components.

Recognizing the challenges of getting girls interested in STEM programming, Halligan and Shaner explained some strategies to engage girls in science and astronomy: girls appreciate collaborative learning environments, personally relevant projects, hands-on and open-ended projects, opportunities for individuality and creativity, specific and positive feedback, and projects that incorporate complex, critical thinking. They also stressed the importance of providing positive role models and mentors within the science community for young girls interested in STEM subjects.

We then split into groups and observed two activity demonstrations that were messy, fun, and amazingly educational. The first was about craters, which are found on most planetary bodies, including Mars. We started by looking at pictures of craters on the Earth, the Moon, and Mars, and describing the features and characteristics of the different craters. We were then each given an object (rocks, bouncy balls, golf balls of varying sizes) and prompted to create our own impact craters by dropping them into buckets of what looked like sand. The buckets actually contained layers of sand, flour, and cocoa, so that when the objects hit the surface, the mini-excavations that the impacts created were very visible. As we each took a turn, Shaner explained more about how the velocity, angle, and size of the projectile can affect the resulting crater.

The second activity demonstration was about water channels, particularly as seen from above. We looked at aerial photographs of rivers and riverbeds on the Earth and other planets and discussed their similarities and differences. We then assembled around long, narrow boxes filled with sand and rocks and tipped at an angle. We each poured water out of bottles into the high end of the boxes and watched as the currents created channels as they trickled through the sand (the box had holes at the low end that emptied into buckets).

Both of these activities are certainly messy, and might be best suited in an outdoor area, but both are equally engaging and seemingly delightfully entertaining for children. Each is grounded in astrobiology and the study of how to determine where and why life exists on a given planet.

Each of the Explore modules, including the Life on Mars? program, is available for free, online, at the Lunar & Planetary Institute’s website. Each module comes complete with standards, an implementation guide, and all of the printed materials that you will need to facilitate the program at your library. The Explore programs seem like a great way to get kids engaged in and excited about astronomy, biology, and science education!

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