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Christa McAuliffe’s lessons from space finally come to fruition

  • NASA Flight Engineer Ricky Arnold demonstrates how water’s molecular properties behave in microgravity. Courtesy

  • High school teacher Christa McAuliffe rides with her children Caroline (left) and Scott during a parade down Main Street in Concord in 1985. AP file



Monitor staff
Monday, July 02, 2018

When Christa McAuliffe was chosen to join the Challenger crew, her mission was to teach from space.

The former Concord High School social studies teacher had an extensive lesson plan, including demonstrations about Newton’s laws, chromatography, effervescence and liquids, all in zero gravity. McAuliffe also planned to give a tour of the Challenger shuttle. Before the planned mission in 1986, McAuliffe had taken a yearlong leave of absence from Concord High School to prepare her lessons.

McAuliffe had recorded a couple practice videos before embarking on the fateful Challenger mission, which are now located on the Challenger Learning Center’s website.

Now, more than three decades after her death, McAuliffe’s planned lessons are not lost after all.

Astronaut Ricky Arnold is currently on board the International Space Station and has already recorded several videos of McAuliffe’s experiments. One of these videos is a tour of the space station. The other videos are in post-production right now and are expected to be publicly available by early August.

It’s part of a broader effort by the Challenger Learning Center to build something out of the tragedy that has a lasting, positive effect for students on Earth.

“This is really about doing them all, packaging them up in a really great way and then creating lessons to go along with them,” Challenger Learning Center spokeswoman Lisa Vernal said.

With these lessons, the opportunity for education is limitless, Vernal said.

“There will be lesson plans attached to each of the videos; in fact there will be several for a few of them, that teachers can then execute in class so then kids will see what happens in space and then Ricky challenges them to do the same thing on Earth and see what the difference is on Earth,” Vernal said.

The videos will be available online, free of charge, so teachers from all over the world can use them, Vernal said.

Arnold had to slightly change some of the lesson plans to accommodate what was already on board the space station.

“The majority of those (lessons), Ricky is going to do very similar if not exactly how Christa had planned,” Vernal said.

Arnold and the Challenger Center had to reimagine the Newton’s Laws lesson a little bit based on availability of material on board.

Astronaut Joe Acaba, who returned to Earth from the ISS in February, also made some videos for NASA as part of their Year of Education on Station. These “STEMonstrations,” as they are called, are similar to McAuliffe’s but not totally the same. Those videos that will be released in August, with attached lesson plans, too.

“Ricky and Joe feel very passionately about completing Christa’s mission to have these lessons,” Vernal said. “We hope to be able to give as many education resources that are relevant, exciting and interesting to (teachers’) kids to get kids excited about STEM education.”

McAuliffe’s was selected out of a group of more than 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space. She sad she was inspired by the Apollo missions as a child.

“I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate,” she wrote on her application to join the Challenger crew.

With support from the families of the crew, the first Challenger Learning Centers opened in Houston in 1988. Now 40 centers are spread across the U.S., with international centers in Canada, South Korea and the U.K.. One of these centers is located at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, McAuliffe’s alma mater.

(Jacob Dawson can be reached at 272-6414 ext. 8325, jdawson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @jaked156.)