Education Lifts Off at Barrett Elementary

Education Lifts Off at Barrett Elementary

Barrett was the only elementary school in Virginia selected to be a NASA Explorer School.

In a video message beamed down from the International Space Station, John Phillips, a NASA astronaut, and Sergei Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut, encouraged 50 teachers at Barrett Elementary School Tuesday to spark excitement among their students about science and engineering.

"We flip over the next generation of explorers," Phillips said.

The two space explorers then slowly flipped — literally — in the zero-G environment.

The message from the International Space Station's Expedition 11 crew kicked off an exciting new school year at Barrett, which was the only elementary school in Virginia selected to be a NASA Explorer School.

"It's just awesome," said Carrie Strasburger, a teacher in Barrett's Project Discovery program, which develops inventive lessons in science, math and technology. "This is really going to put our school on the radar screen. It's going to open up so many opportunities for teachers and students."

Barrett, located on North Henderson Road, was selected from more than 4,000 schools nationwide to participate in the $13.9 million program. Since 2003, NASA has selected 50 schools each year to take part for a three-year partnership.

As an Explorer School, Barrett's teachers will be able to go on five all-expenses-paid trips to science education conferences, NASA officials will visit the school for assemblies, NASA representatives will help the teachers develop lesson plans and a handful of students will have a chance to visit NASA facilities across the country.

For example, students will take a field trip to the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island in Virginia to test launch sounding rockets.

Barrett students can also expect more opportunities to interact with astronauts in person and aboard the International Space Station via video link.

Two teachers will attend NASA's reduced gravity environment training, in which an airplane accelerates toward the ground, simulating weightlessness inside the cabin. NASA officials jokingly refer to the airplane as the "Weightless Wonder" and the "Vomit Comet."

Also thanks the program, Barrett will receive $17,500 in NASA grants to further develop innovative science and math "action plans."

Additionally, three children receive tickets to attend the red carpet premiere of Tom Hanks' upcoming IMAX film, "Magnificent Destination: Walking on the Moon 3-D" at the National Air and Space Museum.

"The big idea is that it lets these children see how the math and science they're learning in school is applied in the real world," said Laurie Sullivan, the coordinator for Project Discovery at Barrett and a former Virginia Teacher of the Year.

BARRETT WAS SELECTED because of its existing passion for science and math — thanks in no small part to Project Discovery — and because of the school's high level of diversity.

Of Barrett's 345 students, nearly two out of every three students are Hispanic, many of whom are recent immigrants. Roughly 14 percent of the school's students are white, 9 percent are black and 11 percent are Asian, according to 2004-2005 school records.

"Barrett fit our need for reaching out into the minority communities," said Peg Steffen, the NASA Explorer School program manager in NASA's Office of Education.

By sparking a love of science among young minority students, Arlington educators hope they can change the dwindling minority representation in technical fields. In math, science and engineering jobs, fewer than 19 percent of workers are women or minorities.

"The love that we have a Spanish-speaking population," Sullivan said. "NASA sees that as a real need."

For all of Barrett's students, the NASA Explorer School program is intended to show them the viability of science-based jobs.

"Oh my gosh! Dreams! These kids are going to just bug about this stuff," said Strasburger, a self-described "space cadet" who was wearing a "Mars Rocks" pin. "My generation, we grew up with John Glenn. Our students today, they don't know about that sort of thing. This is an opportunity to change that."

THE NASA EXPLORER program is also designed to encourage teacher training and boost morale.

At Barrett, the teachers will have a chance to train at 10 NASA research installations, focusing on a variety of subjects including oceanography, meteorology, jet propulsion, rocketry, robotics and more.

Last Tuesday, after the teachers received the message from the astronauts, NASA officials taught them via video phone about the space agency's mission to Mars, the concepts behind orbiting planet Earth, and astronaut exercises.

At the end of the training seminar, the NASA officials — Donner Grigsby, an engineer, and Rachael Manzer, an instructional designer and presenter for the agency's digital learning network — led the teachers in a cheer to pass along to their students: "I have an amazing brain! You have an amazing brain! We have an amazing brain!"