Ask some teachers from across the country what they did this summer and they might tell you they were a "mission specialist" involved with a NASA project.

But these teachers weren’t exploring space. They were learning how to engage students in an exploration of the earth using tools provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

One hundred twenty geography, science, and social studies teachers from around the nation spent a week in June attending the "Mission Geography" workshop in Texas.

"Our goal is to excite and educate students about geography, about NASA’s research and missions, and about the world in which they live," said Sarah W. Bednarz, a geography professor at Texas A&M University and principal investigator for the project.

Two teachers from each state and Puerto Rico were selected to attend.

Hans Goettsch, a high school teacher from Charles City, Iowa, said he learned about the program through the Geographic Alliance of Iowa, a group of geographers from schools across the state.

"The thing that caught my eye, of course, was NASA," Goettsch said. "NASA doesn’t do anything shoddy or halfway. This [project] was their opening into the standards and benchmarks effort for social studies."

During the workshops, teachers worked with geographers, master teacher-consultants, and NASA aerospace education specialists to become familiar with the Mission Geography curriculum.

"It was a neat program, basically computer-based," Goettsch said. "What NASA does is give aerial views and information from its satellites [that are] up-to-date and accurate. So instead of using a map from 1981, teachers and their students have access to current satellite images. We can now actually show kids the impact of, say, floods on an area rather than just talking about it."

Curriculum support modules have been developed at three levels: kindergarten through fourth grade; fifth through eighth grade; and high school.

"We’ve all worked with maps, but now there are maps available of, say, the [United States] at night with all of the lights of the cities and dark regions where the population isn’t as thick," Goettsch said. "You can actually see for yourself where the population and technology are. And when you see the East Coast from Boston to Washington, D.C., all lit up as one big area, the idea of a ‘megatropolis’ really hits home."

Fred Walk, a master teacher consultant from Illinois, has used the new modules in his class already.

"NASA’s satellite images are excellent teaching materials. They really help teachers in the classroom to better teach geography and science," Walk said. "Students like [the program] very much. They just become involved, and they are excited about this hands-on lesson exercise."

The workshop also is an excellent opportunity for teachers around the country to come together to learn new ways of teaching, Walk added.

Goettsch said he and the other Iowa teacher, Tim Moses of East High School in Waterloo, will give a presentation on their Mission Geography experience to the Iowa Conference of Social Studies in Ames this October.

He said they also will make CDs of the Mission Geography materials available to any teacher interested in using the curriculum and will be available themselves for consultation.

"The nice thing is that the [Geographic] Alliance picks up the cost for substitute teachers when we are needed to go and consult during the school year, so there is no financial burden on the school district," Goettsch said.

He said his Mission Geography experience was easily one of the best things he’s ever done educationally during the summer.

"A lot of people think teachers spend their entire summer break on vacation, but we need continuing education just like other professions, and [we] need to work up our lesson plans for the next year," Goettsch said. "There is a lot of preparation that needs to be done prior to classes resuming."

Links:

Mission Geography
http://missiongeography.org

NASA Education Program
http://education.nasa.gov