Program launches minds of Gillette students

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Photo -   Hillcrest Elementary fifth-grader Sarah VanGrundy speaks to Commander Michelle Wallace of the Challenger Learning Center Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 in Gillette, Wyo., during an exercise in which the fifth-grade class had to solve math and science problems to find a missing satellite. Wallace, who was a former math teacher, has been with the The Challenger Learning Center for over a year. It's purpose is to expose and inspire young students about the real world applications of math and science in a practical setting. (AP Photo/Gillette News-Record, Eric Ginnard)
Hillcrest Elementary fifth-grader Sarah VanGrundy speaks to Commander Michelle Wallace of the Challenger Learning Center Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 in Gillette, Wyo., during an exercise in which the fifth-grade class had to solve math and science problems to find a missing satellite. Wallace, who was a former math teacher, has been with the The Challenger Learning Center for over a year. It's purpose is to expose and inspire young students about the real world applications of math and science in a practical setting. (AP Photo/Gillette News-Record, Eric Ginnard)
News,Science and Technology

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — Devin Solberg, 10, scrunched up his face as he tried to work the math.

He quickly brought his answers up to his commanders, but he was sent back to the drawing board.

He went over to his gear on the side of the room and pulled out a wrinkled shirt. He was going to need some comfort for all this brain twisting.

The cargo specialist erased his initial numbers and again began to add the time it would take to rescue some missing astronauts and bring them back to Mars in 2080.

He tried again. He failed again. He erased again. It was a good thing he was using a pencil.

Finally, Devin saw his error. He did the math in his head a third time. He erased again. He filled in the answers, again. This time, he got it right.

A small smile of satisfaction creased his face. He looked relieved.

He checked with is teammate on the other side of the table, the transmission specialist, Jaiden Gramling, also 10.

Then he found a book to read, and went on another mission in another realm, briefly.

"I like my job," the astronaut said. "Cargo Specialist. It's how much stuff you need for the trip. It would have helped it I had used a calculator," the fifth-grader at Hillcrest Elementary said with a wry smile.

"I like everything. I can't think of anything I didn't like."

Devin had figured out how many days his rescue craft would be in space and how to feed everyone on board.

But he had several other puzzles to figure out. That was just step one.

It was all part of free e-mission, "Moon, Mars and Beyond," his teacher, Stacy Kistler, had decided to bring to the class through the Challenger Learning Center of Colorado.

As it ended up, Monday was a day of firsts for Kistler's class. It was the first day her fifth-graders used Skype in a classroom lesson. It also was the first time a Wyoming class got to find a missing space ship, Distant Discovery, while it explored the planets in the solar system.

It was offered through the Colorado Consortium for Earth and Space Science Education in a grant funded by NASA throughout the nation.

Michelle Wallace of the Challenger Learning Center, a former Gillette student, joined the class as teams of the student navigation specialists, transmission specialists, cargo specialists and others tried to use math and science to find the missing space ship and figure out how to rescue the astronauts.

Wallace has brought the program to schools and students in Colorado and northern New Mexico.

But she's never been able to bring the free program to Wyoming, and that was her goal.

"I really wanted Wyoming to be part of this," said Wallace, 47. "If I could have done this when I was in school, I would have had a blast. I loved the math and the science."

The class had two weeks to prepare for its mission. On Tuesday, another Hillcrest class taught by Angela Hartl had the same problem to solve.

The first duty of the mission specialists was to name their team. Out of Neptune Squad, Spaceship Spotters, Spaceship Finders, and Mrs Communicators, Kistler's class voted for "Fuzzy Bunnies."

The Fuzzy Bunnies spent the next 21?2 hours tracking the spaceship and communicating with ground control in the year 2080. They would launch a ship from Mars to rescue the lost craft.

Cargo specialists had to figure out what would be needed to make the space trip and back in terms of food and water.

Navigation specialists had to plot all of the planets on a chart and use x and y numbers to find the planet near the missing craft, once it was located.

Transmissionspecialists had to decode messages sent from the space craft to figure where out what planet it had just visited and where it was.

"It's kind of a free trip, but they don't have to go without leaving their class," Wallace said.

Kistler said it was exciting.

It was one way to bring technology in the classroom, for her students to learn decoding of symbols, to do the multiplication and problem solving, to work on graphs, to plot planets, and teamwork.

To earn their jobs, the students had to apply for their positions. They also got to research their planets, the distance from the sun and their size.

Watching Wallace and the class were her mother, Carol Geis, her nephew, Alex Erisman, who was in the class, and Wallace's former teacher, Nello Williams.

"The skills they're going through is what science and math is all about," Williams said. "They're all focused on what they're supposed to be doing. These e-missions are what they do in a control room in Colorado Springs. This is the next best thing,"

Wallace said she's always loved math and discovered science through some amazing teachers in Gillette, where she graduated in 1983 at Campbell County High School.

"I had some great teachers, people who had a passion for what they taught," she said.

"I'm kind of excited. It was my pet project to get Wyoming going. I'm surprised at how well it's going."

The Fuzzy Bunnies did so well that they discovered an unknown asteroid, which they voted to name "Fire Ball."

Breanne Bolm, 11, was the navigation specialist for the Uranus team. She wore appropriately, a blouse decorated with stars.

"It was pretty fun," she said. "I get to learn about where all the planets will be an how close they are to the sun. This was fun."

Kistler said most of her students said they found the project fun. "Quite a few have said 'this is awesome, Mrs. Kistler. You're the best teacher ever. They all want to know when we get to do this again."

Kistler said she hoped her class can do a similar mission next year, and she may add to the project by bringing in other topics such as art, and more.

Before she left, Wallace presented students with an option of a NASA pin or an iron on tattoo. Most of team Fuzzy Bunnies chose the pin.

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Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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