A room full of youngsters, from grades five through eight, sat on cafeteria benches with their eyes glued to a television screen split three ways.

At the bottom was a live chat. Half of the top showed a still picture that changed periodically. On the other half was a live stream video of Solen-Cannon Ball School District No. 3 fourth-grade teacher Todd Hanson along with the North Dakota district’s reading specialist, Tammy Brown.

Brown and Hanson were in Lake Placid, N.Y., taking part in a NASA Explorer School program called “The History of Winter.” The teachers were working with NASA scientists at the weeklong training session, doing experiments and projects related to snow and ice.

As part of the program, the two joined more than 10 other teachers Feb. 19 in an interactive video conference with students across the country.

“It was exciting,” said Thomas Faye, a Solen-Cannon Ball sixth-grader. “I didn’t know they (snowflakes) had names. It was cool because the teachers were so far away.”

NASA selected the Solen-Cannon Ball district to be an Explorer School last spring. The agency launched its Explorer School program last year in an effort to extend exciting learning opportunities to educators, students, and their families. Through the program, NASA forms three-year partnerships with teams from 50 new schools each year.

The program equips schools with the tools to improve their science, technology, and math curriculum. It also provides customized professional development for educators and pushes schools to increase parental involvement.

Four teachers and an administrator from the Solen-Cannon Ball district attended training in Houston in July to work on a plan for using technology with math and science instruction in grades three through eight. They outlined ways their district would use $17,500 in grant money as an Explorer School.

The Solen-Cannon Ball district plans to spend a majority of the $10,000 it gets this year on 15 handheld computers and laptops for students. The rest will go to fund family nights and computer training classes for parents.

“Technology has to be seriously looked at in the community in order for our students to succeed,” eighth-grade teacher Joe Two Bears said. “It’s critical we get parental involvement.”

In the classroom, teachers and students will focus on astronomy and Lakota star knowledge, which helps incorporate culture into the program, Two Bears said. Also, teachers can use the video conferencing to develop new lesson plans and take part in staff development with NASA and other Explorer Schools.

“The main goal is to inspire the students in those three areas (science, math, and technology),” Two Bears said. “It’s critical in that it will prepare them for post high school or whatever their goals will be. They have to be prepared.”

Students will be taking part in more interactive video conferences, learning from scientists and teachers from across the country.

“It’s like professional development, plus an opportunity for students to interact with other schools and scientists,” Two Bears said of the program.

According to the program’s web site, “The NASA Explorer School program provides wonderful opportunities for schools, administrators, students, and their families to partner with NASA to improve student learning; participate in authentic experiences with NASA science and technology; apply NASA science, mathematics, and technology knowledge to real-world issues and problems; and participate in special events and other opportunities.”

The site continues, “The benefits to NASA, the nation, and the world of engaging students in scientific and engineering adventures cannot be overstated. By stimulating their imaginations and creativity and by meaningfully communicating the significance of NASA’s discoveries and developments to them, we expect to improve the scientific and technological literacy of our young people and inspire them to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering.”

NASA already has chosen 50 new schools to take part beginning this year, but check the program’s web site for information about how to apply in 2005.

Links:

NASA Explorer School program
http://explorerschools.nasa.gov

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