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The space age comes to a local middle school

Mirna Galdámez ’06 (right) and a student from Harrison-Morton Middle School examine a robot in the school’s Mars Yard. Galdámez is now a faculty member in the computer science department in the School of Mathematics at the University of El Salvador.

Faculty and students from Lehigh have joined with the Allentown School District (ASD) to build a 21st-century space center, complete with mission control, at Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown.

The Dr. John A. McAdams Jr. Space Center, which formally opened May 19, teaches students the fundamentals of software programming and robotics and lets them use wireless remote control to guide robots across an extraterrestrial terrain called the “Mars Yard.”

The new center culminates six years of effort by Lehigh and ASD to prepare more students in middle and high school for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. With funding from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) STEM program, Lehigh students and professors have been teaching at Harrison-Morton and half a dozen other elementary, middle and high schools.

The NSF STEM program enlists universities to help public schools teach science, to encourage students to seek STEM careers, and to reach out to black, Hispanic and female students, who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

“Our nation’s future competitive growth is dependent upon an increase in the number of traditional students, as well as minorities and females, who are ‘reaching for the stars’ by seeking careers in STEM fields,” says Henry Odi, executive director of academic outreach at Lehigh.

Rebuilding competitiveness in technology fields

“By exposing middle school students to learning opportunities in STEM areas, we hope to rebuild competitiveness in fields that are crucial to our country’s future.”

Lehigh students have taught eighth-graders at Harrison-Morton the basics of if-then software programming, robotics and x-y math coordinates. Lehigh has given the school robots, wireless links and other equipment.

The Mission Control Center at the McAdams Space Center was designed as a replica of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center by Roberson Butz Architects of Allentown in collaboration with NASA. Mission Control features advanced teleconference systems and Internet2, which will allow the students to connect with the outside world.

“The goal is for students to use the technology now in place to communicate in real time with NASA scientists or even astronauts on space missions,” says Odi.

The project at Harrison-Morton has received two multi-year grants from NSF along with funding from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance (PITA) and from Air Products and Chemicals Inc., Alvin H. Butz Inc. and other companies. In addition, Harrison-Morton, as a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Explorer School, receives educational support from the space agency.

McAdams, ASD’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, helped build relationships with Lehigh and NASA.

In addition to Odi, Lehigh faculty involved with the Harrison-Morton project include Glenn Blank (computer science and engineering), Jennifer Swann (biological sciences), Lynn Columba (education and human services), Gary DeLeo (physics), Keith Schray (chemistry), Terry Hart (mechanical engineering and mechanics), Susan Szczepanski (mathematics) and Richard Sause (ATLSS Center). Staff members include Jean Russo (Center for Social Research), Chad Kusko (ATLSS) and Roy Gruver (Library and Technology Services).

Lee Butz, a financial supporter of the project, is a member of Lehigh’s Class of 1955. Eric Butz, architect of the new space center, is a friend of the university.

 

Story by Dina Silver Pokedoff

Posted on Friday, May 21, 2010

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