Wednesday, 05 June 2002 18:00

Teachers get a Science Lesson

PROVIDENCE -- A small pack of science teachers huddled under the shade of an umbrella as they examined a jumble of parts on a patio table.

Rosanne Porter, a fifth-grade teacher at Cache County's Nibley Elementary School, suspiciously eyed the directions that promised a flight-worthy model rocket. "Read the directions first?" she exclaimed Tuesday to the group. "How many students do you have that would do that?"

Lawre Buys, a teacher at Preston High School in Idaho, teamed up with Porter on the task. Several pairs of science instructors patiently assembled the black and orange components over a half-hour -- following the directions all the way.

While most students are settling into their summer vacation routines, some teachers are seeking new lessons for the fall. Porter and Buys joined 40 other educators in a four-day NASA science teaching workshop based at Utah State University in Logan.

The Rocky Mountain NASA Space Grant Consortium, which focuses on education and research, organized the 13th annual program that finishes today. The model-rocket exercise was a hands-on example of how teachers can break science out of the textbook.

John Vanderford, who directs the space consortium's outreach efforts, said the United States faces a science dilemma. Many of the students studying science and engineering at U.S. colleges are taking their knowledge overseas. There is a growing need to encourage the nation's children to take up science.

"We want to help make science more interesting and less intimidating," Vanderford explained. Last year, results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study showed that U.S. students were above the international average in science testing. However, the United States placed 19th out of 38 nations.

John Taylor, communications director for the NASA group, said students seem to enjoy science through the fourth grade before straying. Enthusiastic science teachers may in turn motivate older students to stick with science.

"You don't get a good crop of students by accident," Taylor said. "You've got to start in the fifth grade." Taylor said another way to increase the number of U.S. scientists is to cultivate the bright minds living in American Indian, Latino and black communities.

Tom Gates, a traveling NASA speaker, opened the program Tuesday with tips for demonstrating perspective in astronomy for young minds. Using balls to represent the Earth and the moon can illustrate the relative distance between the objects. Beads on a string can show proper planetary positions across the entire solar system.

"All of these are tools you can use in the classroom," he said.

Gates also passed out information that allows teachers to access NASA's galaxy of educational materials. Porter, the Nibley teacher, said presentations at these and other programs give educators ideas for improving lesson plans.

"We try to fill our summers with things we can put in the classroom," she said while waiting for the rocket program to start.

Utah Rocket Club members supervised construction at the Providence launch site. As the products began to resemble the diagrams in the instructions, teams installed the parachutes.

Ellis Wood, a rocket club volunteer, distributed pieces of familiar-looking material. "Is this toilet paper?" asked Sherline Maxfield of Monte Vista Elementary School in Farmington. Wood assured her that this was wadding treated with a flame retardant. After lift-off, a delayed charge blows the nose cone off to free the parachute. The wadding protects the plastic parachute from melting.

The group eventually moved into an expansive field behind several homes to launch. Midway through the afternoon flight schedule, Porter and Buys placed their rocket on the pad.

Porter guarded the ignition switch during pre-launch activities. A nearby minivan's battery provided the juice to spark the rocket engine. "We've got to look for airplanes," Buys said as his eyes darted skyward. "No airplanes!" Wood began the countdown: "An Alpha III rocket on a B6-4 engine going in five-four-three-two-one."

Porter pressed the launch button, blasting the rocket into the clear sky. A thin line of smoke trailed the vehicle that was veering off at an angle.

"Uh-oh, we're in big trouble," Buys said during the semi-crooked ascent. A puff of smoke signaled release of the nose cone, but the parachute failed to unfold. The unit sped toward the ground. It at last landed in the field, unlike one poor rocketeer whose creation crashed on a distant rooftop.

A post-mortem suggested that poor wadding insertion caused the charge to melt part of the parachute. But the resilient rocket was in good enough shape for a second flight. The new parachute opened for a softer landing on the relaunch.

Porter said the various rocketry lessons from throughout the workshop are opening doors for her. "I've already decided how I can use this in math, working on angles," she said.


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