M4S@School Helps New York City Students Visit NASA

Math4Science Founder Justine Henning brought Urban Academy Laboratory High School’s calculus class to Maryland for a visit to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA Goddard’s Space Environment Simulator (a huge machine that creates conditions like those encountered in outer space) and NYC calculus students, Urban Academy Laboratory High School Director Becky Walzer, Historian Alan Pietrobon, and M4S Founder Justine Henning


Preparing for the Visit

Math4Science lessons begin with an open-ended question designed to help students and teachers get to know each other and explore the role of STEM in their own lives.

Engineers we interview often remember taking things apart and trying to put them back together as children. “What have you taken apart? What happened after that?” These were the questions we asked Urban Academy’s calculus students.

K took apart his brother’s phone, removing the motherboard. N put her mechanical pencil back together after it broke into many small pieces. D broke the chain on his bike and was able to flip it over to fix it. And S took a laptop apart. H and her dad used to get kits for making sound boxes. They would solder them together until they could press a button to make music come out.

After sharing their own experiences, students read the profile of that day’s featured M4S STEM professional, in this case  Spacecraft Systems Engineer Paul Mirel. And then their teacher invites them to ask their own questions.

“How can you make something thinner than hair?” wondered H, after reading about the wire grid polarizers Spacecraft Systems Engineer Paul Mirel built for NASA’s PIXIE and PIPER missions. In addition to reading Mirel’s M4S profile, she and her classmates had read an article about workshops he has taught at an art school, where he helped students with the engineering side of their art projects.

“Have you ever been to space?” K asked. “How have you used what you learned as an engineer in your daily life?” N wondered. And H asked Mirel how he knew he wanted to be an engineer.

We sent students’ questions to Mirel, who emailed back his answers. (You can read more about their exchange in a previous blog post.)

Sharing M4S STEM professionals’ answers to students’ questions is great fun. D had asked how “measuring the light from the Big Bang help[s] us figure out what happened in the beginning of the universe.” Here’s Mirel’s answer:

You’re going to need to get a PhD in Cosmology to answer that question. It’s fascinating and entirely worthwhile! What we’re working on with PIPER is trying to figure out why it is that matter is distributed the way it is in the universe as we see it now. Stars, galaxies, galactic clusters, and large scale structure of the distribution of galaxies. Why do we see what we see now, and why isn’t it some other configuration?

The students then came up with more questions to ask when they got to NASA:

Students Arrive at NASA Goddard

On May 1st, our local host (American History professor Alan Pietrobon) and Urban Academy co-director Becky Walzer accompanied us to Greenbelt, Maryland, where we met Aerospace Engineer Alex Walts, who first came to Goddard to intern under Paul Mirel and now works there full time. Jay Chervenak, Walzer’s cousin, also told us about his work at Goddard.

Alexander Walts talks with students
Aerospace Engineer Alexander Walts introduces Urban Academy calculus students to NASA Goddard Flight Center and his work there

Students learned about the importance of decontaminating tools headed into space and saw the enormous machines engineers and other STEM professionals at Goddard use to keep them clean. They saw spaces and machines used to shake, freeze, and blast space-bound objects with noise, making sure they will survive the launch and space travel.

Students look at a coil system model
H, N, and J examine a 1/10 scale model of a forty-foot coil system

If you would like help designing your own in-class and off-site Math4Science experiences, contact us at info@math4science.org.