Space Academy helps educators step outside boundaries

09/10/2013 6:16 PM

09/10/2013 6:16 PM

They may not be blasting off to Mars anytime soon, but teachers Amber Boyington and Meg Richard each spent a week this summer participating in the grueling Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala.

And already, their students are better off for it.

Boyington, a math teacher at Mill Creek Middle School in De Soto, and Richard, a seventh-grade science teacher at California Trail Middle School in Olathe, were chosen for the experience by Honeywell.

The program, called Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy, is a joint effort between Honeywell Hometown Solutions and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The application asks teachers who apply for those spots how they use technology in their classrooms.

A total of 210 educators from 42 states and 27 countries got an all-expense-paid five-day trip to the academy. That’s where the adventure really starts.

“We went through a helicopter crash simulation (in water)… and we had to get ourselves out and to safety and make sure our team members got to safety,” Boyington said. “In my particular group, we had a member of our team who was male: They told him he had to pretend he was nine months pregnant and in labor and couldn’t swim out.”

Richard compared the anti-gravity simulator they used to an intense amusement park ride.

“It’s a lot like the Detonator (at Worlds of Fun). They call it the space shot,” Richard said. “You had your stomach in your throat (by the end).”

Both teachers said the activities kept them busy from 7 a.m. until the evening. Many of the tasks focused on teamwork and communication.

“We had one mission where we were in a model of the orbiter or the shuttle. We had to follow a flight plan to replicate a docking with a space station, and members of the teams had to go out and fix issues,” Boyington said.

That meant climbing a ladder in a heavy spacesuit and trying to fix an electrical problem — a skill that wasn’t in her background.

“I had to communicate with people in the control center, and they would tell me how to fix different anomalies. It really focused on building that communication,” she said.

Another activity had the teams attempting to make a system to purify water.

“We were given imaginary money to spend on different resources. …The winning team created the most effective system that was cost effective,” Boyington said.

Richard said that the test water was bright yellow, and “you got extra points if you drank it” after it went through the filtration machine.

Working in such unfamiliar situations successfully built the teachers’ confidence in what they can do for students.

“I actually have zip-lined from five stories up into a lake,” Boyington said. “I can’t replicate that experience for students, but knowing I had the courage to do it gives me the courage to step out of my boundaries in school.”

Both teachers said they valued lectures from aerospace luminaries such as astronaut Don Thomas and Homer Hickam, author of “Rocket Boys,” the book that became the film “October Sky”.

When Richard met her science classes this year, she asked them if they were to travel to another planet, which one they would choose. Most said Mars, and Richard knows that it might be possible for them.

“It gives you goose bumps, because they know, too,” said Richard, who is also coach of her school’s robotics team.

She plans wear her flight suit to class when she thinks she can tie it into the lesson.

Boyington said that the experience ties in well with the teamwork-based math lessons of the Common Core curriculum.

“The experiences I had showed me how valuable it is to communicate with each member of your team. We weren’t perfectly matched, but when there was tension between team members, we persevered,” she said. “I’m going to share the hiccups and ask, ‘How would you solve this problem to produce whatever we’re trying to do in a respectful way, so everyone can have a contribution?’”

Richard said her students are awed by her experience.

“Everything was a simulation, but there are one or two who really think I went to space,” she said.

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