Hawfields Middle students interact with NASA experts

Dr. Caryn Long, Lead Education Specialist at the NASA Langley Research Center in Langley, Virginia, chats over a video teleconference with sixth grade students at Mebane's Hawfields Middle School. The school's media coordinator, Hali Pyles (right), received a $5,000 grant that allowed the school to purchase video teleconference equipment to host such interesting education opportunities for Hawfields Middle students. 

Thanks to an investment in their education by the school’s media coordinator, sixth grade science students at Hawfields Middle School are receiving a unique opportunity this fall to learn more about space travel directly from NASA scientists in a series of digital teleconferences. 

The teleconference exchanges — a series of four that the school is conducting this semester — have been made possible through a grant successfully applied for by Hawfields media coordinator Hali Pyles. 

“We applied for a grant two years ago. It was called the Lowe’s Toolbox for Education. I used that grant — it was a $5,000 grant – to purchase what’s called a Polycom Teleconference system, Pyles said. “I had used it in the county that I was previously employed for, and I brought it to Hawfields so we could experience digital learning.”

On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 4, a collection of students were brought to the Hawfields Middle library to listen and speak with Dr. Caryn Long, Lead Education Specialist at the Langley Research Center in Langley, Virginia. Dr. Long was projected onto a large screen, similar to a movie projector, to the students, who were then able to interact with her as if the NASA expert was in the room with them. 

“NASA has always, for the longest time that I’ve remembered, participated in free digital learning,” Pyles said. “And so we can sign up. They have tons of different modules, this one being the effects of humans in space. I sent the list of (digital) classes to the sixth grade science teachers, and they signed up for the one that they were interested in.”

The Hawfields sixth graders were compelled to ask a variety of intriguing questions directly to Dr. Long, making for an informal, yet highly personal, nature to the session. 

Has anyone ever lived on the moon? 

How do you land a rocket? 

How does a rocket launch? 

How do you keep up with rockets on their way down from space? 

How can you breathe in space? 

How long do astronauts stay in space? 

How does space exploration help improve life here on Earth? 

How do you use the restroom in space? 

Dr. Long explained to the students how human waste is evacuated from a spacecraft (through a portal into the vacuum of space), how spacecrafts land (very carefully, she joked to the students) and how long astronauts tend to remain in space (a minimum of three months, but sometimes well over a year).

According to Dr. Long, NASA is preparing to send a spacecraft to Mars in the coming decades. She also told the students that NASA’s current budget constitutes one half of one percent of the total United States annual budget. Dr. Long explained how for the Mars mission, the Astronauts will have to remain in the same sitting position for seven months – the amount of time NASA anticipates it will take for a spacecraft leaving Earth will take to travel the approximately 34 million miles to Mars.

“Exploration is a natural part of human nature,” Long told the Hawfields Middle students, informing them that technological advancements such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), satellite television, geo-positioning for farming, automotive insulation, water purification, and sophisticated weather tracking systems are all brainchildren of NASA. 

For those Hawfields sixth graders able to participate in the series of teleconferences, it was much more than a typical classroom lesson. 

By bringing NASA to life for these students, and by allowing them to engage with NASA scientists, Pyles and the staff at Hawfields Middle are doing their part to better engage their students, while offering them fascinating opportunities to learn directly from some of the country’s top aeronautic experts. 

“I think it’s very interesting to learn from somebody that’s in a different state from you, and somebody that’s not necessarily a teacher in a public school,” Pyles said. “I mean, every kid in this building knows what NASA is, and what it stands for. I think they hold a lot of respect for the people that work at NASA. And they’re very interested in learning about what they do day to day. Some of them might aspire to be an astronaut one day, or work for NASA in some respect.”