One such teacher was Christa McAuliffe, who made history when she became the first teacher selected to go to space as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space project. Announced by Ronald Reagan in 1984, the pilot program was designed to inspire students, honor teachers and spur interest in mathematics, science and space exploration. These pioneering educators, who would go into space as payload specialists (non-astronaut civilians), would then return to their classrooms and share their experiences with students.
McAuliffe’s plans included filming several demonstrations to be used in educational packages for students and teachers across the globe. However, as part of the Space Shuttle Challenger crew, she died tragically on the morning of January 28, 1986, when the orbiter broke apart just 73 seconds after launch. NASA cancelled the Teacher in Space project in 1990.
McAuliffe’s lessons were lost for a moment, but not forgotten. Challenger Center, a leading science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education organization, worked in partnership with NASA to complete some of the lessons she had planned to perform aboard Challenger. Not only would these learning modules be a fitting tribute to McAuliffe, but the entire Challenger crew.
As former teachers themselves, astronauts Ricky Arnold and Joe Acaba wanted to honor McAuliffe by sharing her space curriculum. In 2017, prior to Acaba’s launch, both he and Arnold agreed that these lessons would honor McAuliffe’s legacy—and, teachers’ contributions around the world—during their missions aboard the International Space Station. The idea was also a great addition to NASA’s Year of Education on Station.
“To me it’s for our nation; it’s really important it wasn’t lost,” said Arnold. “I’m hoping we can package up some nice stuff teachers can use as a resource long after we’re home, long after the mission is over.”
These timeless STEM topics, targeted for students in fifth through eighth grade, include effervescence, chromatography, liquids in microgravity and Newton’s law, but they can be adapted for younger or older students as well. Instead of McAuliffe’s planned tour of the space shuttle, this version includes a tour of the space station. Most of the lessons will be completed as originally planned, but some elements have been reimagined based on materials available aboard the orbiting laboratory.
NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement aims to encourage, involve, educate and employ those who dream of a career in STEM by providing resources and experiences to help open doors for young students. NASA creates unique STEM learning opportunities for students and teachers, helping to inspire the workforce of the future to continue the agency’s legacy through an unprecedented array of missions.
Learning is a lifelong process and, even in the face of tragedy, we come together and learn from these moments as well. By sharing McAuliffe’s lesson plans we hope to keep her memory alive in the classroom and also inspire the next generation into future STEM careers.
Find the lessons here: www.challenger.org/christa
(Posted on the NASA website August 7, 2018, edited by Katherine Brown.)