Lucky Few Join STEM Mission at City’s Space Camp

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Students monitor a trip to the International Space Station from Mission Control at the Department of Education’s Summer Space Camp at the New York City Center for Space Science Education.

Adi Talwar

Students monitor a trip to the International Space Station from Mission Control at the Department of Education’s Summer Space Camp at the New York City Center for Space Science Education.

“Okay, we’re about to get started on our final briefing.”

The 32 students enrolled at the Department of Education’s Summer Space Camp at the New York City Center for Space Science Education turned to the front of the room, where Zohar Ris, the center’s flight director (call sign: “Madcat”) detailed the goals of the students’ simulated mission into space.

Madcat started up a PowerPoint presentation; one slide showed a picture of the eight astronauts on the Challenger shuttle flight crew, who died in an explosion shortly after takeoff in 1986.

“We’re here to continue the work of the Challenger crew,” Madcat said, telling the students that their mission was to locate and collect data on Halley’s comet. The students then split into two groups; half headed for Mission Control, while the rest filed into a launch simulator with two rows of plush blue seats that would act as their transportation to the International Space Station (ISS).

“We’re about to lift off with our space shuttle, so let’s put on our imagination hats,” Madcat said. “Let’s act like astronauts.”

“Scared?” one of the students joked.

A booming rocket burst accompanied takeoff, and the simulator reached the space station in moments. The students excitedly entered a room that doubled as the ISS, which was adorned with workstations and a television screen displaying Mission Control next door. One student sat at a microphone and opened his script.

“Mission Control, this is Spacecraft. Do you read?” he asked. “Over.”

This weeklong space camp runs for five weeks each summer for public school middle school students, and it’s one of many programs providing hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning opportunities during the summer break.

In recent years, interest in STEM education has swelled in New York City and nationwide among policymakers and the public. According to a study conducted by the Congressional Research Service, more than 200 bills pertaining to ‘science education’ were introduced between the 100th and 110th Congress, and according to the Brookings Institution, the federal government spends approximately $4.3 billion annually to support STEM education and training. This attention has resulted in more programs like the space camp and the Center for K-12 STEM Education at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering.

Ben Esner, director of the NYU center, said that while these programs offer substantive learning opportunities for many students each year, STEM needed to be integrated into each school for all students to have the chance to explore their potential.

“I love that we’re having our cultural moment, that it’s cool to be geeky. That used to not be possible,” Esner said. “We need to capitalize on this moment where children are changing their attitudes. Now it’s time for adults to change their attitudes.”

Inspired by Challenger

The Challenger Learning Center at the New York City Summer Space Camp, housed in a building with four other schools on the Lower East Side, is one of only 40 such facilities in the world. The Challenger Center is a non-profit organization established by families of the original Challenger crew so that participating students could strengthen their STEM knowledge by “completing’ the Challenger mission. Demand is very high; this year, more than 500 students applied for 162 available slots.

Katherine Brown, the center’s director, said the camp focused on aviation and engineering, subjects that often went unexplored in the regular school year.

“How are kids going to know if they want to be an aeronautical engineer?” she said. “It gives them an entirely different conception of what a scientist could be beyond a guy in a lab coat.”

At the camp, students practice taxiing, takeoffs and landings on flight simulators, build projectile rockets and paper airplanes to study the science of aeronautics and program rovers they construct out of Legos. The lessons all build to the final mission simulation on Friday.

Building and programming the Lego rovers occupies much of the students’ time during the week. By Thursday, the robots were built and the students had completed tutorials about how to use the programming software. Madcat instructed his students to program their robots so it would move across a mat, adjust a model satellite, and drive back to the spot where it originated.

Students worked in pairs, huddled around their rover and a laptop, programming the robots to accelerate, turn and pause at the right moments. Madcat wanted precision; if the rover came to rest a few inches from where it began, he asked students to try again.

At one table, Imanuel (call sign: “Waffles”) and Alejandro (call sign: “Fatality 14”) examined their rover and considered their options.

“Maybe five rotations?” Fatality 14 asked.

Waffles shook his head. “That might be too much,” he replied. Madcat told them that they needed a team name.

“Let’s both say something random at the same time,” Waffles suggested. “And that’s our team name.” So was born Team Lego Pancakes.

The two students had no experience with programming before the camp, but Fatality 14 said he understood why their calculations required accuracy.

“Say you want to make a peanut butter sandwich; you have to be exact,” he explained. “You may want the robot to take the butter out of the jar and spread it on the bread, but it might take the jar and spread that on the bread.”

The camp’s educators contend that this kind of experiential learning can spur students to consider alternative educational or career paths. Jerry Tsekas, a former science teacher at the Bronx Leadership Academy, said space camp could be seismic for students who hadn’t been introduced to such a curriculum before.

“It’s a catalyst; it can open their minds and eyes,” he said. “The next astronaut that’s going to walk on Mars by 2030; it’s going to be one of these kids.”

State navigates changing standards

Across the East River, the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering is hosting hundreds of students and teachers for an array of STEM education programs, with focuses ranging from cybersecurity to the development of a mathematics curriculum that incorporates robotics. Ben Esner, the program’s director, was quick to laud the educators of the classes, many of whom are graduate students at the School of Engineering.

“It’s magical, but it’s not magic,” he said. “It’s passion, excitement and content development.”

The Center is funded by the Challenger Center, a non-profit organization established by families of the original Challenger crew so that participating students could strengthen their STEM knowledge by 'completing' the Challenger mission.

Adi Talwar

The Center is funded by the Challenger Center, a non-profit organization established by families of the original Challenger crew so that participating students could strengthen their STEM knowledge by 'completing' the Challenger mission.

In the school’s Science of Smart Cities program, more than 50 middle school students learn about the challenges inherent in designing modern urban areas. In one exercise, a trio of students constructed a tower made of balsawood capable of holding 117 pounds so as to learn about architecture, while other students diagrammed and constructed mockups of environmentally sustainable cities out of Legos.

However, Esner said that challenges remained if New York wanted to build upon the work of programs like Science of Smart Cities, and said that New York State’s educational science standards would benefit from a greater emphasis on engineering, technology and computer science.

“The kids need to know Common Core,” he said. “If the state said they needed to know engineering, we could move the argument.”

New York State’s current science standards are the Learning Standards for Mathematics, Science and Technology (MST), which the State Board of Regents adopted in 1996. The mathematics section was replaced in 2011 by New York’s adoption of the Common Core math standards.

In April 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released after a development process that included science writers and representatives from 26 states (including New York). The standards were designed as benchmarks for states to apply to their own science and engineering educational guidelines. To date, 13 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the standards, but New York State has not yet joined them.

The NGSS have been lauded by advocates for their emphasis on critical and creative approaches to science concepts and an increased focus on engineering. However, critics have countered that some traditional science disciplines, such as biology and chemistry, receive short shrift, and they’ve compared its development and rollout to the controversial unveiling of Common Core.

The State Board of Regents announced that it would consider incorporating the NGSS into a newly crafted set of criteria called the New York State Science Learning Standards in the Statewide Strategic Plan for Science it released in January 2015, and the Board could conceivably adopt that set of standards as early as winter of next year. Esner said that the standards, as they exist today, failed to adequately address the need for students to be adept in engineering concepts and practices.

“You want the system to value contemporary science education,” he said. “When we start judging schools by how much engineering you teach, the system will change to express those values.”

Teacher certification qualifications also were a cause of concern for Esner, who asserted that graduate students with engineering or technology degrees often found that their educational backgrounds would not help them get certified as teachers. He spoke of Dhaval Balsana, a graduate student enrolled in the School of Engineering who has taught at Science of Smart Cities for the past two years, but would not be able to use his undergraduate or graduate degrees in engineering to certify for teaching in New York State.

“We need to clear the way for engineering to become a legitimate educational background,” Esner said. “The democratization of access to quality STEM education for students will come from the teachers.”

Gender and racial disparities

Despite increased national attention on STEM education, pronounced gaps in educational outcomes persist between students of different genders and races. According to a study conducted by the U.S. News and World Report and the Raytheon Group, only 10 percent of graduate degrees attained by women in 2014 were in STEM fields, compared with 24 percent of males who attained such degrees. The study found a similar imbalance between white and black students.

“From 2009 to 2014, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees granted to white students in STEM has grown from 16.8 percent to 19.5 percent, rising every year,” the report reads. “Over the same time period, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees granted to black students in STEM has grown more slowly, from 12.7 percent in 2009 to 13.6 percent in 2014.”

The U.S. News report and other research have found that these gaps are often entrenched by the time students reach high school. The D.O.E.’s Space Camp and NYU’S Center for K-12 STEM Education both largely focus on middle school students, and though the space camp wasn’t designed for middle school students because of this, Brown acknowledged it was an advantageous benefit.

“There’s a lot that shows that in middle school is where it falls off,” Brown said, referring to students’ interest in STEM education. “Seventh grade is the last time you’re going to get the girls interested.”

At the School of Engineering, there are specific programs designed to focus on quality STEM education and access for women and minorities. In the GenCyber Computer Science for Cybersecurity Program, 75 high school girls participate in a two-week stint of sessions on the advantages of a cybersecurity career. The classes are structured in the format of a mystery, where students use parts of the curriculum they’ve already learned in order to uncover the program’s next step.

Soraya, a high school student enrolled in GenCyber, found the program by searching for STEM summer classes online, and said that it was everything she’d hoped it would be.

“Tomorrow, we’re going to the Google office,” she said. “Who knows? That could be my future employer.”

Mission complete

Back at Space Camp, it was early afternoon, and the students had neared the end of their mission onboard the ISS. They’d completed most of their assignments and avoided a close call with an errant meteor shower; now, all that was left was to launch a probe that would accumulate detailed photos and information on Halley’s comet. Mission Control buzzed with activity, and Tsekas leaned against the back wall, beaming with satisfaction at the commotion.

“We wanted to do this when we were kids,” he said. “Now, we’re our age and we’re doing this. One for the bucket list.”

On the ISS, two students worked behind a sliding glass door, preparing the probe for its slingshot towards Halley. One student hovered inches above the probe’s interior, adding and removing pieces, while the other studied her calculator and notepad, determining the correct weight of the probe. The final calculations were made and the room went dark, save for one illuminated screen.

“We are preparing for probe deployment!” Brown yelled as the students gathered to watch. “All systems go, and stand by for countdown in…ten!”

“Nine! Eight! Seven!” the kids joined in.

The probe deployed to applause in Mission Control, where parents had gathered to take photos of the fledging scientists. Within moments, pictures of Halley’s comet flashed on the screen. The probe had been successful.

“We’ve completed the mission of the Challenger crew,” Brown said as the space crew high-fived each other and Mission Control cheered. “Congratulations.”

Summer vacation is a time of worry for teachers, principals, parents and policymakers who fear that students will lose ground during the long break. This summer, City Limits will look every week at some aspect of the citywide, summer-long effort to stop the summer slide.