Teacher Lands PBS Award for Innovative Space Program

Dec 9, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Space Integration Module coordinator Colleen Howard poses with one of the shuttle simulators. Photo: Terry Keel

Houston, we have an innovation.

When it comes to getting kids enthusiastic about learning, you can’t do much better than putting them in a space shuttle, saying, “Look: we need you to launch this thing into orbit. Today.”

But short of sending them to Space Camp, it can be tough to pull off such a maneuver in a convincing or engaging way—unless you’re Colleen Howard of the Mesa Public Schools system in Arizona.

Armed with a traveling shuttle simulator and sophisticated software, Howard has pioneered a program that allows about 4,500 students in 53 schools to perform mock shuttle missions that come complete with a stop at the International Space Station and unexpected emergencies that the crews have to solve mid-flight.

Project specialists in Mission Control perform tasks to earn oxygen points. Photo: Terry Keel

Tailored to integrate lessons in science, mathematics, communications and teamwork, the Space Integration Module, as it is called, has been so effective it has now grabbed attention on a national level. Earlier this month, Howard was named as one of the winners of the PBS Teachers Innovation Awards, which honors 10 teachers each year for pioneering education efforts.

“The PBS Teachers Innovation Award winners use media creatively to engage and support their students in new ways, representing the highest standard of innovation in education,” said Rob Lippincott, senior vice president of education for PBS, in a news release.

For Howard, the program is a labor of love.

“The real heart of this mission to me is that we are trying to capture the imagination of these students, and inspire them for a lifelong love of learning,” she said in a telephone conversation with TakePart.

Educational Booster

To capture that imagination, it helps to have a fully-equipped mock space shuttle that can hold a crew of eight, built to impressive technical specs with grant funding from Boeing.

A shuttle medical specialist takes a pulse during a mission. Photo: Terry Keel

Howard’s got two such shuttles that visit Mesa schools. For the SIM Program, she and another teacher take orbiters—dubbed Odyssey and Destiny—from school to school and run sixth-graders through half-day missions. To get ready, students and teachers have to do some training on the software, then students are organized into teams for each nerve center of the operation: the shuttle, the space station, and mission control.

Students then get titles laden with responsibility: medical officer, flight director, shuttle commander, program specialist, and others. The goal is to successfully “launch” the shuttle, dock with the ISS and return home safely, without the crew running out of “oxygen,” Howard said.

To keep their oxygen levels up, the students have to perform a series of varied educational tasks to earn credits.

For instance, the students may have to build an electric circuit or use a robotic arm to perform a task, or do research about magnetism or electricity and turn in their results to the flight director to earn oxygen credits for the crew in space.

“It’s all aligned to sixth-grade standards across the curriculum. So it’s aligned to science standards as well as math standards and technology standards and social studies and reading and language arts. It’s aligned all across the curriculum,” Howard said.

The simulation is driven by specialized software that prompts students to perform tasks to move the scenario forward. It occasionally throws problematic curveballs at the students.

In one problem-solving scenario inspired by the film Apollo 13, the simulation warns that the “O2 scrubbers” are on the fritz. Students have to figure out how to build a new one with improvised equipment—then communicate the construction details to the shuttle crew via radio.

A student performs an experiment with electricity to help complete a mission. Photo: Terry Keel

“The computer randomly generates these crisis situations,” Howard said.

In another, the shuttle commander gets sick, and students have to research illnesses and treatments in order to get the mission back on track.

To increase the reality of the situation, Howard keeps the kids in the different centers separated. They communicate through radio and texting in a “communications panel,” and see each other through streaming video. The comprehensive scenario lasts about four hours.

It's become a highlight of the school year, said Korin Forbes, elementary content specialist for the Mesa public school district.

“The teachers definitely look forward to it; the students really look forward to it. It’s just a special time for them,” she said.

"The Coolest Thing..."

The success of the SIM program is also a testament to Howard. Colleagues and former students laud her as an enthusiastic educator deserving of recognition.

“Colleen is a real go-getter, and she’s very motivated, and it’s her passion,” Forbes said. “She wanted more kids to be able to benefit from what she saw was such a beneficial learning experience.”

Others agree.

Students use a hand-held electronic microscope to perform an experiment during a recent mission. Photo: Terry Keel

“I remember her loving what she did, and being extremely enthusiastic about the integration of learning in general,” said Brianne Kiley, a former participant in the SIM program who recently finished a masters in forensic science. “In everything that she taught, you knew she loved teaching, which then inspired us to learn it.”

Kiley went through the program in its inaugural year of 1994. Back then, the orbiter was made of wood, and the simulation ran for 24 hours, with students working in shifts.

Staying up late to go to "space" was a real educational highlight for some.

“I remember this being the coolest thing possible,” said Kiley, who was a math specialist in the shuttle on her mission. As soon as she got in the orbiter, she remembers, she felt the nervous weight of responsibility that came with the simulation. “When the TV screen turned on and we saw Mrs. Howard and ground control, we felt like we were just out of this world.”

The SIM program slowly continued to grow until 2002, when Howard was picked to attend Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as a teacher in connection with a Boeing program—a partnership that lead to a dramatic expansion when she returned.

“When I came back, [Boeing] said, ‘Well why don’t you let us give you some money and help you build a new space shuttle, a new orbiter, more state of the art, more up to date?’ ” Howard said.

Later adding a second orbiter, the SIM program was able to reach out to more and more schools, eventually hitting this year’s total of 53. It’s an innovation that helped garner the PBS award, an honor Howard was thrilled to receive.

“I screamed when I got that email,” she said.

Howard will attend a weeklong seminar in Austin, Texas, for PBS Innovation Award winners, packed with seminars on education and professional development.

A student in mission control builds a model of a space module to help earn oxygen points for a mission. Photo: Terry Keel

Meanwhile, back in Arizona, Kiley said the SIM program has a long-lasting impact.

“I remember coming out of that and feeling so lucky to be a part of something that different and that special. And it really got me interested… in learning and applying what I’ve learned to whatever I’m doing. And that’s actually what kind of triggered me to go into the sciences in general,” Kiley said.

“What was neat about that program is that there is a direct correlation between that and what I’m doing today," she said. “Part of why I’m doing what I’m doing in the forensics is… that everybody has their own specialty in what I’m doing… everybody has to work together for a common goal, and that common goal for me now is solving crime.

“And to be able to use those tools that I learned in the space shuttle, not only the love of learning but also this teamwork and that aspect of working together has definitely helped me to succeed in what I’m doing today.”