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Current Science Classroom

The New Space Race

Few things capture a child’s imagination like space travel. Fifty years after humans first landed on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s steps still inspire a love of science and exploration. Today, a new space race is on—this time with far more ambitious ends. Starting a permanent colony on the Moon, placing the first humans on another planet, and exploring worlds of our solar system with the potential for extraterrestrial life are all on the horizon for the next few decades.

Bringing the far reaches of space to your classroom is something every science teacher should do, regardless of the subject they teach. There are simply too many advances in space travel happening on what feels like a weekly basis to let such a current and exciting topic go unaddressed in the classroom. The possibilities for application are as limitless as our Universe!

The most obvious connection is in physical science classes with a space science focus. For a short, engaging STEM challenge, have kids make their own model of the Jupiter orbiter Juno. The Juno mission has given scientists new information on the formation of our solar system, which is beautifully detailed in a new PBS Nova special on the planets. After watching the documentary, give your students a chance to shine artistically by having your class create a comic explaining how our solar system came to be.

Mars has also been in the news due to public and private efforts to put a human on the Red Planet. My blog, Science Over Everything, features several resources including an interview with NASA Engineer Kobie Boykins, who has worked on every Mars rover since Spirit and Opportunity. We also have an article on SpaceX’s efforts to build the world’s most powerful rocket, with the goal of exploring Mars and beyond. Both articles pair well with our rubber band rocketry lab, in which students calculate and graph the conversion between elastic potential energy, gravitational potential energy, and kinetic energy.

As you may expect, NASA has a treasure trove of teaching resources to incorporate rocketry into your classroom. Their Rockets Educator Guide has dozens of activities that can be customized to the grade level you teach: Build rockets out of anything from cardboard tubes to pipe insulation to water bottles, ready-to-go labs and lesson plans that allow you to seamlessly incorporate in any lesson on velocity, forces, energy, work, or any number of classical physics concepts. Kids can learn about launch angles and even test their designs in a wind tunnel. My favorite lesson is Project X-51, where students are given a building budget to design and construct a rocket out of PVC piping. More advanced physics classes can incorporate any of the above activities by upping the level of math involved. Apply calculus to any of the rocket building challenges or have your kids calculate the velocities and trajectories for probes to reach other planets.

Space science and physics shouldn’t be the only subjects to get to explore the heavens—biology teachers can be part of the fun too! For a unit on evolution, have your students brainstorm what traits would be beneficial on a planet with a red dwarf star or one that is tidal- locked (one side would be in eternal darkness and the entire planet would be subject to violent windstorms due to the uneven heating). The University of Washington also has an entire unit on astrobiology. You could even join the search for extraterrestrial life by participating in the SETI’s citizen science program.

Chemistry is another subject that could journey to space by investigating combustion reactions or comparing nuclear and chemical rocket fuel. Teaching gas laws? Have your class calculate the thrust needed to leave Earth’s atmosphere and how much fuel would be needed to generate that amount of force. Students learning electron configuration could investigate the emission spectra of atmospheres of different planets to look for the possibility of life in an activity from PBS Nova. In a lab from NASA JPL, kids could investigate what materials would be best for a spacecraft, great for a unit on reaction series. JPL also has an engineering lab where students build a scrubber to take carbon dioxide out of the air and calculate its efficiency using stoichiometry. Don’t forget to watch the clip from Apollo 13 before doing this challenge!

Space exploration is also ripe for cross-curricular projects. Students learning modern American history and physics would get a lot from putting the science in historical context. Robert Kurson’s book on the Apollo 8 mission and the sociopolitical turmoil of 1968 Rocket Men would be a great way to fuse science and history. On Science Over Everything, we have an interview with the author and several recommendations for how to implement cross-curricular activities. The data-focused labs and activities that go with a unit on space exploration are also perfect for crossover with mathematics. Work with your math teachers to align your space unit with math standards and have students analyze their data in math class, bringing real-world applications to not just one, but two classes.

But my biggest piece of advice on this topic is to have fun with your students. Do interesting challenges. Show them pictures from other worlds. Embellish your classroom a little bit. Exploration, after all, is what pushed our ancestors to inhabit every continent on Earth and today drives us to explore the stars and planets those same ancestors could only look up and dream about. That spirit of discovery is part of what makes us human. Shouldn’t we instill that same spirit in our students?


Chris Anderson (chris@scienceovereverything.com; @TheScienceJedi) is a science instructional coach for the Hamilton County ESC.

Astronomy Earth & Space Science Instructional Materials Teaching Strategies High School

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