High above the Earth, the crew of the space shuttle Discovery performs routine research and experiments, unaware that they are not alone while in orbit.
They are being watched.
At Springfield's Garfield Elementary, a team of 20 students is observing the shuttle crew closely as they prepare for a mission of their own. By taking part in a four-week math and science curriculum called "Eagles Soar," the rising sixth and seventh graders have learned what it takes to put together a space mission.
"I really like it because we're doing fun stuff — geography and math and science. There's stuff I learned that I didn't know at all before, and I really like it," said rising seventh grader Mohamed Khairy, one of the students in the program.
The "Eagles Soar" program culminated with a trip Wednesday, Aug. 3 to the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, where the students put their weeks of training to the test by competing against other teams in a virtual launch and space mission.
"They're taking what they already learned in school … and going a step further, and applying it to whatever they're going to be doing," said Jane Cofie, one of two teachers working with the program. "They all know what longitude and latitude are, but now it's a bigger deal, to be able to find the crater they're looking for. Now, it's being applied to something they have to know. It's personalized."
Through math and science lessons, students learned the meaning of terms like "trajectory," then used that new knowledge to determine how they would construct their mission. Last year, the program was themed "Rendezvous with a Comet." This year, it was "Voyage to Mars." Each student in the class was given a specific job to learn, which they would perform during their "mission" at the Challenger Center, a non-profit founded by the families of the astronauts who died in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
"It's certainly beyond what we do during the school year. There's an intense focus on working as a team. It's that application piece. They get to see if they're good at science and math, what else they can do with those things," said Garfield principal Maureen Marshall, who sat in on a debate which took place on Tuesday, Aug. 3 between two groups on the subject of whether robots or humans were better equipped to perform tasks on the surface of Mars. The consensus? Robots might be more durable, but humans can improvise better when problems arise. Case in point — the crew of the shuttle Discovery, which had to perform several space walks to fix the damaged exterior of their shuttle.
"They didn't know the people on the crew also had to be mechanics, to be able to fix anything that goes wrong. They're paying attention to things on the news. I don't know if they would do that, unless they were doing this program," said Cofie.
Mohamed said he couldn't wait to take part in the mission. His job would be to use robotic hands to collect samples from the surface of Mars.
"I give it to someone else to see what it is and take it with us to Earth. It's going to be cool."
Not bad for a summer vacation activity.