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Education Newswire: May/June 1999

Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum

NASA Creates a New Education Ecosystem

So there you are, contemplating next week’s lesson plan on magnetism, and trying to find some way to make it align with the new science education standards. Students are fascinated about space, and you want to design a lesson that covers more than just a rehash of the idea that the Earth’s magnetic field looks like a bar magnet. Besides, your school never re-stocked that bottle of iron filings that ended up on the floor last year! You may, somewhere, have heard that a particular NASA mission had a great resource that discusses magnetic storms and power-line blackouts, but you can’t recall which of over fifty missions have this information. So, what do you do?

Making science topics come-alive in the classroom can be a challenge, especially at a time when emphasis is on hands-on learning and personally relevant experiences.

In the past, teachers were faced with a confusing number of options, even assuming they knew that a particular resource existed somewhere in the vast NASA education system. You might, for example, travel to a local or national teachers’ convention and shop the booths, hoping to collect something that might work. You might even have attempted to pick up the phone and call NASA headquarters, or visit its website. Most teachers, however, opt to do none of the above because they are expensive, frustrating, or time consuming. If they try to search the Internet for relevant lesson plans or primers, they will usually not recover something that they can easily use, but will have invested precious time in scouring through the over 1900 websites that AltaVista presents you for a search using the key words “magnetic pole.”

NASA wants to make this whole process as painless as possible for the teacher, and so, in 1997, the Office of Space Science (OSS) created five regional education Broker/Facilitators who connect the educational community to education products identified and cataloged by four separate OSS Education Forums. Each Forum has the responsibility for identifying all the education and public information products created over the years by the NASA science missions in each OSS research theme. Themes include: 1) The Sun-Earth Connection; 2) Solar System Exploration, 3) The Astronomical Search for Origins and Planetary Systems; and 4) The Structure and Evolution of the Universe. The products can include, for example, CD-ROMs, classroom activity guides, lithographs, bookmarks, and posters. Eventually, by the year 2001, there will exist a single resource directory of the products available under specific topic areas.

The Forums will provide this directory to each of five regional Broker/Facilitators who will enable teachers, school districts, the general public, and other clients, to find the specific NASA resource they need. Teachers and the general public will eventually be able to peruse the resource directory on the Internet. They can also contact their regional Broker/Facilitator and explain what they are looking for to someone who is trained to use the NASA resource directory efficiently. Although the entire OSS Ecosystem is still under development, many Forums and Broker/Facilitators already have websites you can visit. Many of these are beginning to provide ready-to-go information prior to the publication of the official resource directory in 2001.

Consider as an example the The Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum (SECEF), a partnership between the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of California, Berkeley. All NASA missions that study the Sun, or the space environment of the Earth, are included in this Forum. The “Special Announcements” page gives you up-to-date scientific news about the latest solar storms, geophysical disturbances, and advances in solar-terrestrial space science. Each month, under the “Featured Resource” link, SECEF presents an education resource, with specific commentary about whether lesson plans are included, and other descriptions of its content. In addition, SECEF provides a primer on why solar and terrestrial space science is so important to study. The primer explains many of the ways that solar storms and adverse “space weather” have affected satellites, short-wave broadcasts, and telephone communication in the past, and how they may in the future.

So, let’s suppose you are a 7th grade teacher looking for a classroom activity on the Earth’s magnetic pole. You normally contact your regional Broker/Facilitator, by visiting the NASA OSS home page. You then call or email the indicated contact person and explain what you are looking for. They may point to, for example, the NASA IMAGE satellite program’s workbook “Solar Storms and You!” which includes among its nineteen activities, one called “Motion of the Magnetic Pole.” They may provide you with the name of the person at IMAGE to contact or give you the URL where the activity can actually be downloaded. You may even visit the Forum website and find this information yourself with just a few clicks of your mouse.

Since many NASA missions of the recent past have, on their own, created dozens of educational products, there are virtually hundreds of items for teachers to view as potential cornerstones for their next classroom activity. With the new OSS resource directories, we think that many new teaching opportunities will be stimulated. Future NASA missions will also see what products have been undertaken in the past, and be able to use these as guides for designing new generations of even more effective resources.

Sten Odenwald is an astrophysicist and Chief Scientist with Raytheon STX Corporation at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He is also the author of the recent book The Astronomy Cafe, and he continues to answer a number of questions each day at the Astronomy Cafe website located at His email address is