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Wadsworth students help bail out NASA in simulation

By John Published: March 4, 2011
Central Intermediate School fifth graders Rachel Osterhouse (left), and Julia Rieger work on the Uranus navigation team during a NASA mission simulation on Friday in Wadsworth. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal)

John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

In the year 2080, NASA lost contact with a research ship exploring the outer reaches of the solar system.

Earth Mission Control enlisted the help of every fifth-grader at Wadsworth's Central Intermediate School to locate the ship and calculate how many supplies were needed to rescue the astronauts.

The fifth-graders applied their knowledge of the solar system and skills with decimals and fractions to save the astronauts.

When the Flight Director using the Internet phone service Skype to video conference with the class announced that the rescue craft had docked with the lost shuttle, the class erupted in cheers.

''We do have docking,'' the flight director announced from the Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. ''I repeat, we do have docking. This is excellent news!''

That happened Friday, actually, and saving the astronauts was the talk of the cafeteria at lunchtime.

The school received two grants to bring the lesson to life: $5,000 from Wheeling Jesuit University and $5,000 from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, which supports education in Ohio.

The school's assistant principal, Eric Jackson, and gifted programs coordinator Jacinda Yonker from the Medina County Educational Service Center wrote the grants together.

Yonker previously had taught in West Virginia and had taken children to the Challenger Learning Center.

It's one of 48 centers nationwide established by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education to honor the Challenger Shuttle, which exploded 25 years ago this year.

The center has developed several ''e-mission'' simulations that require children to apply math and science knowledge along with problem-solving skills.

The e-mission that Wadsworth's fifth-graders completed envisions a time when we have research bases on the moon and Mars. The ship hasn't checked in with the Mars base in five days.

Once the students decipher the clues and find the ship, they need to figure out how much food, water and oxygen they need to pack for the rescue.

The clock is ticking. They have 90 minutes to save the astronauts.

The students spent two weeks preparing for the lesson, which ties in with the fifth-grade science, math, language arts and social studies standards.

''So the kids really have to use all the knowledge from all their classes to make this work,'' said science teacher Chris Roberts.

But they told the kids just enough to spark their curiosity.

''They didn't tell us much,'' said 10-year-old Jenna Calderon. ''They got us really excited and pumped up.''

She said it was a little stressful, but much more fun than a math quiz.

''I had to graph where the space shuttle was, the clues to where it was. It involved problem-solving and reading symbols.''

Patrick Wyant, 11, was in a different classroom for his mission.

''It actually makes you feel kind of like you're trying to help save astronauts,'' he said.

Their principal, Paula Canterbury, said some students might have taken it a little too seriously.

''The kids are really so into it, a couple of them are like 'We're going to kill them if we don't find them.' There is an anxiety level,'' Canterbury said. ''That's how real it is.''

Fifth-grade math and science teacher Cheryl Bareiter, who had never used Skype before, said communications with mission control in West Virginia broke down a few times.

''We started off OK, then the audio went out,'' Bareiter said. ''She couldn't hear us but we could see each other and that happened three times.''

That just added to the realism. ''That's what you have to do,'' she said she told the children. ''Work through the crisis and make the best out of it. We still found the lost ship.''

Jackson said that using Skype instead of much more expensive teleconferencing equipment saved the district enough money that they will be able to do another e-mission with sixth-graders in May.

Jackson said some students thought the lesson only lasted a half hour.

''That really spoke volumes because they weren't sitting at a desk, looking at the clock,'' Jackson said. ''An hour and a half flew by like it was nothing.''

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or Read the education blog at



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