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From Mark Gargano
Student Spaceward Bound Under the Southern Cross: From our ancient
past to our space future
Twenty Year 10 Science students from St Joseph’s School, Northam, Western Australia have recently returned from their expedition after 3 days of Earth and Planetary Science covering over 1600 km and taking in sites at New Norcia, Gnangara, Cervantes, Mount Magnet and numerous spots in between.
Using my Spaceward Bound experiences, rather than just having the students visit sites, it was crucial that they were active participants, contributing to the whole experience. So mid-way through last year, I began examining sites and modifying techniques with an imbedded concept of field science experience into the curriculum where the students not only participate, but also survey and are assisting with the construction of learning materials and investigations being conducted along with writing papers with their scientific results.
The Student Spaceward Bound under the Southern Cross, working under the theme of, ‘From our ancient past to our space future’, took in areas to enhance the student’s appreciation and therefore their understanding of concepts within Earth and Planetary Science-past, present and future. The expedition had a few key overarching areas, which were technological science, research science and demonstration science, with tours and investigations in each part.
After receiving their notebooks, for the all important scientific journaling and NASA pencils for sketching and an overview and safety briefing, all crucial for a successful expedition, we were off, leaving our school routines behind, hitting the field for the students see the real earth science.
The technological part included touring and taking in information at the European Space Agency (ESA) Deep Space Ground Station just outside New Norcia. Here the students were taken through the tracking and monitoring room and then had an opportunity to get inside and climb up the large 35-metre antenna used to send and receive data from ESA satellites and probes. After learning about different frequencies and bands, specialist space missions and how the dish works, the expedition moved to the Perth International Telecommunications Complex north of Perth. This facility handles television signals, internet and email services and for the space science enthusiasts also assists in the preparation and pre-launch checks of rocket launches out at a variety of locations around the world to the monitoring and final positioning a satellite in orbit. In addition to this a tour of Emu Downs Wind Farm, which is a sustainable systems project just outside Cervantes, where the power that is generated is utilised to run a major desalination project for drinking water. Additionally, also taking in John Glenn Memorial Park at Muchea, which has information about that historic space flight and the former tracking station that was vital to the flight of Friendship 7 in 1962.
As for development science, the students were privileged to experience a current engineering project where they were briefed and then looked over the new Stage 2 Lancelin to Cervantes Highway. Very impressive and one that connected nicely with the theme, with the many discussions on soil and rock type and the building and construction processes using local materials to complete this project by 2011.
With the research science the students examined and listened to discussions about the Pinnacles at Nambung National Park, taking into account their formation processes and succession processes along dune systems, clearly demonstrating our dynamic Earth. Research was also conducted at Lake Thetis, highlighting the stromatolites. In addition to understanding the process of microbialite formation and how these critters have been so crucial for life on earth, samples of water, soil and vegetation from the surrounding area were taken with the aim to investigate links between salt levels, pH, minerals with the soil type and the ecological balance in the surrounding area with some insitu work done with a range of instruments, digital probes and microscopes and material for further research, back at the lab. With discussions at the possible impact structure at Yallalie, set the scene for the following day of field science.
The remote location, just outside of Mount Magnet at Wogarno Station enabled some superb Astronomy. For our evening session we had one of our school’s telescope as well as a few items on loan, including a 16 inch telescope, where the students did some viewing, learned how to construct and line up a telescope and how to calculate what was in view and where to look and utilising sky charts and a GPS Sky Scout locater. This session was halted just before midnight.
The next day involved geological and ecological sampling at various locations around Mount Magnet, Payne’s Find, Wubin and many spots in between, a transect of some 500 km. This included soil and vegetation sampling at sites that have now been GPS logged by the students, including some interesting highly saline sites. After getting into their research teams, students taking surface and subterranean samples to examine, rock material, soil type, moisture levels, pH readings, salt and ion levels, microbial activity and identification and examining areas for extreme life forms. This material built upon the previous days efforts, with another impact area also being examined, with inspection of part of the ejecta rim of Dalgaranga crater looking at evidence of a cosmic collision, with discussions and perhaps a few conclusions drawn here.
Apart from using terms like extremophiles, endoliths, craton, lithification, microbial mat, cyanobacteria and pre-Cambrian in everyday language the students became very busy at the end of our 2008 academic year writing reports, establishing their evidence and drawing conclusions from some of their samples. With some material being identified with our field laboratory of probes, sensors, laptop and microscopes, other evidence gathered the following week, along with setting up culture plates and species identification. Overall a most successful endeavour and one where the students were actively engaged in the field science, as some commented, were we doing geology or biology or ecology or astronomy?
I think they are appreciating the diverse nature of earth and planetary science after all.
Where to from here, examining the students results, comments and some of the investigations they developed we are looking at refining the techniques for the next group, focussing in on some of the specific sites and adding a few other areas that may prove valuable with our understanding of life on Earth-past, present and future. Students have provided results that will provide a comparison for future studies and we are investigating methods of working with other groups to provide data on soil and climatic conditions, something that has truly proven to the students that even at 15 years old you can contribute to scientific understandings in our community and that studying geology, biology, chemistry, ecology, hydrology, history, astronomy, engineering, paleontology and areas of indigenous interest are all interconnected.
I am aiming to compile these resources, including the student work booklet, assignment questions, teacher resources and suggested laboratory exercises with discussion prompts to be soon made available to interested teachers at various professional development opportunities. The idea is to have some specific sites of astrobiological interest and some generic ones so that teachers in Western Australia, or other parts of Australia or indeed from overseas, can appreciate earth and planetary Science in the grandeur of the outback. Certainly after our first successful trial, with a few tweaks, I can safely say that any student (or teacher) would be over the Moon to participate in an expedition such as this.
This wasn’t the only space related event that my students participated in, also late in 2008, the Year 10 students that do the Space Science elective, completed their day mission. This was a culmination of studies and preparation over the last semester, where the students needed to work together as a project team to complete a mission. One student team were monitoring and testing spacesuits, another group were a part of the remote camera team and a few others constructed a remote control rover that broadcasted images from the surface to a TV to enable it to be controlled remotely. As well as having a lot of fun, the students developed concepts of various parts of a space mission, including the need for satellite or high altitude imagery, using landers and rovers for initial survey work, before you send astronauts to conduct ground science. After dealing with frustrations, technical difficulties, not so clear photographs and unusual communication methods, once again the students articulated their findings in reports that mostly outlined the human factor side and human-robot interfacing in space missions.
In my ‘spare time’ as part of a Masters Degree program, I am anticipating examining closely space science programs in classrooms and their effectiveness at engaging students, long-term retention and assisting with understanding key scientific principles. I am hoping that what we qualitatively feel about the worth and excitement of these types of programs can be quantitatively measured and published.
Another area that is well down the path, are some of the activities and teacher tasks for Spaceward Bound Australia 2009. In July, Mars Society Australia is looking forward to hosting NASA Spaceward Bound down under with a core group of NASA and MSA scientists providing the backbone of research and development that will lay out a very detailed education program and an excellent field experience. Some exciting things occurring in earth, planetary and space science in Australia, watch this space for updates… on to Mars!
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