Alaska Space Grant Program helps Alaskans see end of space shuttle era

Release Date: 
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

By Brian Keenan

UAF Geophysical Institute Outreach Office

Fairbanks, Alaska — The days of watching a space shuttle launch into the Florida sky may be numbered, but thanks to funding from the Alaska Space Grant Program, a fortunate few education professionals from Alaska have at least been able to witness the end of the era firsthand.

The teachers, counselors and professionals have received more than a privileged spot to view the launches; they’ve participated in themed “Education Forums,” a docket of activities focused on strengthening STEM education in Alaska schools. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Student achievement in those areas is central to the mission of NASA and the Space Grant Program.

Alaska Space Grant Program Executive Director Denise Thorsen facilitated the opportunity, contacting educators and weighing applications for the multiple slots. For her, it was important that Space Grant be able to supply Alaskans with a valuable and soon-to-be-gone opportunity.

“We have made a concerted effort to say we want Alaskans to witness the end of an era. We can connect NASA better to what we’re doing in Alaska,” Thorsen said. “I feel very strongly that we need Alaska people to see the end of the NASA launches. We don’t know what’s coming next. If you want to maintain that excitement about the science, you need people out there who have witnessed this.”

Space Grant sent Ute Kaden, assistant professor of secondary education at UAF, to the February launch of Endeavor. Thorsen, also an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UAF, attended the April launch of Discovery under the theme of “Women in Engineering.”

Three Alaska public school counselors attended the May 14, 2010 launch of the space shuttle Atlantis: Robert McClory, a counselor at Ketchikan High School; Lisa Mounds-Craft, from Anchorage High School; and Kristin Presler, from Fairbanks’ University Park Elementary. The theme of that event was “Connecting NASA with School, Academic, and Career Counselors.” The event marked the final launch of Atlantis.

In keeping with the theme, NASA showcased the impressive talent and technology they have to educators. Counselors toured NASA facilities, heard lectures from distinguished scientists, and met with educator-turned-astronaut Ricky Arnold. The counselors were familiarized with the vast array of resources — lesson plans, links, scholarship information — available at the NASA website.

Equally central to the activities, though, was NASA’s solicitation of ideas from the counselors about how they could better connect to students and schools. A day of panel discussions, breakout sessions, and other activities was designed to solicit ideas from the counselors about how the agency could better facilitate the learning of STEM concepts.

“That was a real eye-opener for me,” Lisa Mounds-Craft said. “I thought I was going down to learn more about NASA, but they really wanted to know what more they can do.”

Mounds-Craft plans to use the web resources to get students excited about the annual science fair, and she also plans to invite staff from the Anchorage Museum (a Space Grant non-profit affiliate) to give a presentation to the freshman class on the opening day of school, next fall.

For Robert McClory, of Ketchikan High School, the experience has already made a difference in the support he’ll be able to provide students.

“I’ve got two students graduating Ketchikan High to go to UAF to study engineering, one in aerospace. (The Education Forum) made it a lot easier for me to understand and encourage the students’ goals. It gave me some perspective and ideas and familiarized me with some of the NASA web resources.”

The actual shuttle launch did not fail to impress, either. In a space packed with thousands of people from all over the world, the air buzzed with anticipation for the final launch of Atlantis. Education forum participants were seated just across the water from the launch site, in an area reserved for dignitaries, legislators and astronauts’ families. The Alaskans were able to hear mission control talking to astronauts on the shuttle, eavesdrop on the systems check, and count down with the tower and the rest of the crowd.

Lisa Mounds-Craft said the Atlantis launch was quite the event. “It was kind of like an inauguration,” she said.

Ultimately, the sadness that typically marks the end of an era hasn’t shown through. Excitement for the launches continues among the educators fortunate enough to witness them first-hand. If anything, educators’ feelings about science education and working with NASA have increased. 

The Alaska Space Grant Program funds a variety of science-education programs in Alaska. They grant seed money to faculty in order to improve research infrastructure, run higher education programs such as the Student Rocket Program and Greenland robotics project, support pre-college teacher professional development, and develop programs for children. Space Grant maintains affiliations with the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Alaska Southeast, Alaska Pacific University, the University of Alaska Museum of the North, the Anchorage Museum, and the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, in Kenai. The program is administered through the Geophysical Institute, and GI personnel sit on the program’s board.

As the NASA shuttle program winds down, Alaskans will get one last look. The Alaska Space Grant Program will send educators to the September 2010 launch of the space shuttle Discovery — that shuttle’s final voyage. The theme of that Education Forum is “Tribal and Community Colleges.”