Future of Learning

More than just a science lesson: NASA EarthKAM fascinates a special education classroom

Speech-language therapist Dacia DeAngelis demonstrates gravity in a lesson with fourth grade students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in the Asbury Park School District in New Jersey.

ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Dacia DeAngelis, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Asbury Park, stood in the center of the classroom, dangling a red ball the size of an apple above a fifth-grader’s head. At just the right moment, she let go of the ball. It dropped softly on the boy’s head, and the room erupted in laughter.

From there, the seven students launched into a discussion of Newton’s Law, the properties of gravity and how those properties change in outer space. The fourth- and fifth-graders practiced using vocabulary words like “microgravity,” and brainstormed how the beach ball they were tossing to each other might move differently if they were playing with it on the International Space Station.

At first glance, it looked like a typical science lesson. But a lot more was going on.

Thanks to the NASA EarthKAM (Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) program, the students can learn about earth from a new perspective: as astronauts orbiting the earth over 200 miles away on the International Space Station. They’ve turned their classroom into a miniature mission control center; they take photos of earth by entering the coordinates of locations they want photographed using an online interface, which communicates with a camera mounted on the International Space Station. That camera snaps the photos and beams them back to earth, where the students can access them on the classroom computer.

DeAngelis, a speech-language therapist, co-teaches the class with Jodie Redman, an occupational therapist. They’re using the program not only to introduce science knowledge, but also to help their students, who all have special needs, to improve a range of abilities, such as motor, sensory, social and behavior, as well as verbal and communication skills.

For example, the beach ball activity helped the students understand gravity. It also helped them practice their hand-eye coordination and question-and-answer skills. Earlier in the class, the students used desktop computers in the classroom to match a hard copy of their EarthKAM photographs with an image on the computer, a task that challenged their visual motor skills through coordinating movements of the computer mouse with what they saw on the screen. Redman said that this is a skill they had previously spent an entire class period mastering.

According to DeAngelis and Redman, activities like these give students the opportunity to work on as many of their learning goals as possible, bringing them a step closer to moving out of the special education program.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” DeAngelis said. “And they can do it. They can learn. There’s no reason why they can’t learn microgravity.”

In New York City, Jenny Siegfried, a special education teacher at P.S. 94M, works with a class of six fourth- and fifth-graders who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Like DeAngelis and Redman, Siegfried uses EarthKAM to teach content knowledge alongside skills her students need extra help developing. For each EarthKAM mission, Siegfried uses a laptop connected to the classroom’s smart board.

Occupational therapist Jodie Redman (background) works with fourth grade students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in the Asbury Park School District, in New Jersey. The students are matching hard copies of their EarthKAM photos with the images on the computer screen.

“Using multiple types of technology not only increases confidence and technological skills in my students, but also provides different sized screens and access points, which serves to best meet a range of learning types,” Siegfried said in an email.

After an EarthKAM mission last fall, her students used their photos to publish a class book about the mission. In addition to helping them recall key content learned in the unit, the book also gave students a way to share their project. They completed activities that involved interviewing classmates and teachers about their favorite places, then photographing those places from space using EarthKAM. According to Siegfried, this helped encourage her students to practice social interaction. Normally, this type of communication would be a struggle.

“It’s so worthwhile when the students do the photos,” Siegfried said. “Then we have artifacts that we can use in so many different ways.”

Asbury Park’s DeAngelis agreed, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing what students learn in subject-area classes.

“We have to bring in the curriculum,” DeAngelis said. “We don’t have a science background, but they have to access it in their regular classroom. So it’s important to pre-teach some of those vocabulary words they’re going to see down the road.”

Siegfried, DeAngelis and Redman all observed that EarthKAM has helped them introduce students to the world outside of their day-to-day lives. It’s also an opportunity for students develop practical life skills, such as using a computer or communicating with peers and adults. This gives them the confidence to consider ambitious career goals, like becoming an astronaut.

Speech-language therapist Dacia DeAngelis takes a photo of a student in front of a make-shift green screen made out of a green plastic tablecloth. DeAngelis will use an app on her tablet to create a photo of the student playing with the beach ball on the International Space Station to demonstrate how gravity changes the way an object moves in space.

“They had little experience using a computer to explore of the realms of internet research or other websites,” Siegfried said. “This was a great chance for them to be using skills they already had in a setting they had never used them before.”

Because her students were inspired by the EarthKAM program, Siegfried set out to capitalize on that positive energy. She designed a project in which students had to research the job requirements for becoming an astronaut. After learning more about life on the space station, taking a field trip to the planetarium and corresponding with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the students applied for the job of an astronaut, “an activity that merged their personal interests with functional life skills,” Siegfried said via email.

DeAngelis and Redman said many of their students come from poor families and don’t have access to opportunities beyond their small community.

“They had no idea what a space station was,” Redman said. “It broadens their experiences.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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