- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 31, 2004

Eric Hodge of Northwest dreams of visiting another world. He would one day like to travel on a spaceship as an astronaut into the vast unknown.

“It would be just like flying in an airplane, but going straight up,” he says. “Plus, it would be a better adventure.”

A sixth-grade science student in Erica Barnett’s class at Brightwood Elementary School in Northwest, Eric, 11, recently enjoyed learning from David Hornyak, an engineer from Boeing Co. Mr. Hornyak spoke to Mrs. Barnett’s class last week as part of Journey Through the Universe Week.

The program, sponsored by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, in partnership with D.C. Public Schools, assembled 32 scientists and engineers from 14 area research organizations to inspire students to pursue careers in math and science.

The Challenger Center for Space Science Education is a nonprofit organization started in 1987 in honor of the people who died in the 1986 space shuttle accident.

In 1999, the organization started Journey Through the Universe, which is funded through the Minority University Research and Education Program in the Office of Space Science at NASA.

As part of the program, guest teachers visited about 7,000 students in more than 250 classrooms in about 110 schools, says Stacy Smith, program manager at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

This is the fifth year the program has been implemented in the District, and D.C. Public Schools now fully funds the city’s participation. The local schools are the national test bed for other programs in the country, Mrs. Smith says.

Similar weeklong events take place in about nine other areas throughout the country during different times of the year, she says. For the first two years, the organization fully sponsors the program. After that, the association expects the community to carry on the efforts with limited financial and program support from the Challenger Center.

“We’ve done 29 Journey Through the Universe Weeks,” Mrs. Smith says. “We’ve reached more than 130,000 students in the classrooms.”

She says a lot of these students have never left their communities.

“They’ve never flown anywhere,” Mrs. Smith says. “They can’t imagine what it would be like to discover something.”

The example of the successful scientists could encourage students to consider careers in related fields, Mrs. Barnett says.

“They get to see scientists or engineers who have gone through studying some aspect in the science field in great detail,” she says. “The students get to understand the relationship between science in the classroom, textbook science, and real-life careers.”

Nancy Grace Roman of Chevy Chase worked at NASA for about 20 years in the management of the astronomy program. Last week, Ms. Roman, who holds a doctorate in astronomy, shared her knowledge with about 12 D.C. public schools.

During her presentation, which she has given for the past five years, she usually prepares a quiz about characteristics of the planets.

Ms. Roman also displays a scale model of the solar system, which includes cardboard cutouts of the planets.

“They get an idea of how big the solar system is,” she says. “They realize how close Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars are to the sun, and how if you go to Pluto, you’re pretty far from the sun. If we get time, we go out to Sedna, the new body that’s been discovered.”

Teaching the next generation about science is essential, Ms. Roman says. Even if students don’t plan a career in the field, they need to be informed citizens.

“We live in a technical society,” she says. “They won’t all become scientists, but hopefully they will all become citizens and voters. Many societal problems concern science, such as the energy crisis, genetic alterations of foods.”

Because Nate James, a computer scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, attended D.C. public schools, he says, he hopes he is proof to local students that careers in science are attainable.

“Going to college wasn’t something common in my family,” he says. “I was the first in my immediate family to go to college.”

As part of his presentation, Mr. James likes to discuss the sun and how it works. He also talks about NASA programs concerning the sun and how computer scientists aid in research.

“They send spacecrafts into space to collect information and data,” he says. “It requires computers and people who know how to write programs and people to know how computers work to get the data back to the scientists on Earth.”

This is the fourth year a scientist has spoken in Christopher Dualey’s classroom. He is a sixth-grade science teacher at MacFarland Middle School in Northwest. Mr. Dualey says it’s critically important for the students to be able to meet a working scientist.

“Quite a few of my kids already come in with a strong interest in science,” he says. “Once they meet the scientist, they are hooked. It’s not just coming from Mr. Dualey, but an outside professional. It opens them up to the career and profession. It brings science to the classroom. It’s like an in-house field trip.”

Journey Through the Universe Week is only one of the Challenger Center’s programs. The organization also holds educator workshops to instruct teachers on including earth and space science in their curriculum, says Desiree Heyliger, local team leader for the District’s events.

About 50 Challenger Learning Centers also exist throughout the country, including one in the Alexandria headquarters, which simulates space missions to such places as the moon and Mars. The equipment is available for teachers and students year-round.

Children today are not especially interested in math and science, Miss Heyliger says.

“They say they are too hard, and they don’t like the subjects,” she says. “You have to find other ways to get them interested in math and science to do what they need to do to get them to the next level.”

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