Extraterrestrial Learning


A group of MCLA students who are pursuing their elementary school teaching licenses got a view of the solar system through the eyes of NASA Education Specialist Rick Varner, who presented a workshop full of ideas to make science come alive for the children they will teach.

According to Adjunct Education Instructor Barbara Kotelnicki, the creative and energizing experience Varner provided for these future teachers inspired them to cross the curriculum to design their own interdisciplinary units, using the latest research from NASA.

Varner, who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, put together the workshop especially for MCLA's student-teachers, who are enrolled in the College's seminar for early childhood and elementary students. They learned ways to present lessons on the solar system, the seasons and rocketry.

"This was a wonderful opportunity for Berkshire County educators," said Monica Joslin, dean of academic affairs.

According to Kotelnicki, tackling science and technology standards can be daunting. However, "Mr. Varner aligned his lessons and with our state standards and showed us many hands-on and concrete examples to use with our future students," she said.

The hands-on activities included those that could be replicated in the classroom, such as how to use Play-Doh to create the planets to scale. This allowed students to see just how large Jupiter is in comparison to the tiny planet of Neptune, as well as how close to the sun Mercury is.

"It was a nice visual for students. It was very kinesthetic and tactile. They were very involved with the process," Kotelnicki said. "We also looked at the phases of the moon and the setting of the sun and where it is in correlation to where we are on the planet. There were lots of things that made these abstract concepts - that are so difficult for children to understand - much more concrete."

To demonstrate the difference between a solar and a lunar eclipse, Varner used a flashlight to represent the sun and a ping pong ball to represent the moon.

"It was so great to have this refresher course from him on these concepts," Kotelnicki said. "He gave us a wealth of material."

In addition to the hands-on activities, perhaps the greatest benefit to the students was the realization of the many resources and connections available to them to assist them as teachers, said Kotelnicki.

"There's lots of different technology that they can now infuse in the classroom," she added. "It was a fabulous demonstration, and hopefully we can open it up to more students in the future."

When Varner returns to MCLA in the fall, Kotelnicki plans to invite educators throughout the district so that they, too, might utilize his ideas and have another resource for their science lessons.

In addition, Joslin hopes to bring NASA's GeoDome to Berkshire County this fall, to expand the region's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) offerings.

The GeoDome is a 3D theater that mirrors the system found at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, as well as other leading centers around the world. The galactic experience inspires and educates the public about NASA'S Earth and Space Science programs, missions and results.