Learning From NASA

What makes a meteor burn up when it falls through Earth’s atmosphere? “Friction” is the typical answer NASA gets from the pupils of its Informal Educators Workshop, according to Carol Stocksdale, the museum’s educational outreach coordinator, who recently attended the workshop.

The real answer to why meteors burn up in the atmosphere is because of compressed gases. As the meteor falls, the air in front of it is ignited by the sudden change in volume. The workshop attendees learned about this process with the help of a cool gadget called a fire syringe, which demonstrates the quick compression and subsequent ignition of gases.

This is just one of the many demonstrations Carol is bringing back from her three days at the NASA center in Cleveland, Ohio. A new scale model for the solar system will help students compare the size of Earth to the other planets in our solar system. With another new hands-on activity, student visitors will also be able to make their own impact craters to explore what happen when meteorites hit the Earth. The museum staff tested it out this afternoon. Check out the pictures:

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As well as new, more effective, demonstrations to add to planetarium shows, Carol also hopes to eventually add a space exhibit outside the planetarium. “There’s so much information that something always gets cut out of a tour,” she explained. Putting up an exhibit would allow visitors to discover space knowledge in a different format than the typical planetarium show.

Other activities Carol would like to add include a game that mimics the challenges engineers face when transmitting information with light waves. Light only travels in straight lines, unlike the previously used radio waves. The light is still a more efficient way to communicate over the vast distances in space, with only a 7 minute lag time. This, and all of the activities, utilize everyday objects to demonstrate scientific properties. “This makes the demonstrations more approachable for visitors,” says Carol.

Another fascinating part of Carol’s visit was the physiology lab at the Cleveland NASA center. “At NASA,” Carol says, “the attitude is that humans will be going to places like Mars in the near future, it’s just a matter of figuring out the best way.” The scientists in the lab are researching ways to allow astronauts to exercise their muscles in the zero-gravity environment of space. An experiment with an existing space station helped the researchers learn about the effects weight-lifting can have on the space craft itself. With a weight machine attached to the side, the astronauts did enough repetitions that the space station actually moved in response to the changes in weight!

Carol is also excited about the potential community projects that can come out of the NASA resources at the museum’s disposal. NASA has materials available to create summer camp experiences for children of all ages. Carol speaks enthusiastically about the opportunity. “We’d like to explore the possibility of partnering with other groups in the community to create some kind of middle school summer camp emphasizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning, similar to what the 3rd Grade Academy program does with reading,” she says.

All of the new ideas, from activities to exhibits, will keep Carol and the rest of the museum staff busy for quite a while. Check out the tour reservation form on our web page to take advantage of these new resources.

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