Sunday, May 13, 2012

To Boldly Go...

50 Years of Space Exploration
by National Geographic
Year after year I find that students know very little, if anything, about space exploration (which is personally very troubling). However, this lack of awareness provides a great opportunity to delve into the human exploration of space. Our 50+ years of interplanetary investigation is writ with both stunning discoveries and monumental failures, yet it is imperative that we keep traveling, keep searching, keep asking, keep discovering.

In a traditional "pick a planet" project, students are focused on finding facts about an object in our solar system. I like to turn the process around so that it reflects more of an inquiry-based, process-of-science research project. Our essential research question becomes, "What has human space exploration taught us about our solar system?" The emphasis of the project is placed on how we humans struggle to design, build, launch, navigate, and operate spacecraft to investigate the mysteries of our solar system. Instead of just looking up a bunch of facts, I ask students to create a system of research questions to ask about their chosen spacecraft and its mission target, then embark on their research utilizing a variety of incredible primary resources (mainly from NASA, and for which I create a classroom project web page as a launching area).

An excellent research project includes the following elements:
  • Name, date, scientific purpose, and major scientific discoveries of the spacecraft mission
  • Realistic, three-dimensional model of the spacecraft (using Earth-friendly materials) 
  • Basic information about the scientific instruments on the spacecraft: what they are, what they do, how they work, what they measure, etc. explained in plain language
  • Scientific data, information, and details about the solar system object visited: position/location in the solar system, distance from Sun, diameter, mass, composition, rotation/revolution data, atmosphere/temperature data, moons/rings data, etc. explained in plain language and using the metric system
  • Other unique, interesting data and information about your object: can include non-scientific things such as stories, folklore, mythology, poetry, artwork, etc.
  • A caption and credit next to every image borrowed from the internet as well as a complete list of scientifically diverse references in a bibliography (so that we respect others and their copyrights)
I am rewarded each year by the enthusiasm for this project and the overall depth of learning that occurs. Students gain a much better appreciation about the science and engineering challenges involved when exploring the cosmic frontiers beyond the safety of our tiny planet. And some of them even grow up to become rocket scientists themselves...  :)

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