Gethsemane science teacher Cheri Stockinger attends Space Camp

Preparing to repair a broken spacecraft window in space, Cheri Stockinger puts on a spacesuit for the simulation activity. (submitted photo)
Preparing to repair a broken spacecraft window in space, Cheri Stockinger puts on a spacesuit for the simulation activity. (submitted photo)
Cheri Stockinger (far right) corresponds with the International Space Station from “mission control” at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. (submitted photo)
Cheri Stockinger (far right) corresponds with the International Space Station from “mission control” at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. (submitted photo)
Stockinger straps in for a spin in the G-force simulator at Space Camp. (submitted photo)
Stockinger straps in for a spin in the G-force simulator at Space Camp. (submitted photo)
Stockinger participated in a water landing simulation, much like astronauts were trained in for landing the original Apollo and Mercury missions. (submitted photo)
Stockinger participated in a water landing simulation, much like astronauts were trained in for landing the original Apollo and Mercury missions. (submitted photo)

School year takes off with space-themed lessons in Maplewood classroom

Students wondering where they need to drop off their completed homework assignments in Cheri Stockinger's classroom this year will be sent to "mission control" — a bulletin board adorned with an image of a spaceship.

The space decor and lingo are inspired by Stockinger's week-long experience at Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, this past summer.

One of 20 Honeywell grant recipients, she immersed herself in the space camp for educators and is already sharing what she learned with her students at Gethsemane Middle School in Maplewood.

And her creative spin on what she gleaned at camp doesn't stop at the bulletin board.

"I'm just buzzing with new ideas," she says. "Even my language for this year is kind of trendy and space related, because I'm so excited about it.

"I don't want to sound corny, but it was an out-of-this world experience!"

For the love of science

Stockinger, 42, has been teaching middle school science at Gethsemane for the past three years. Prior to that, she was a substitute teacher for 15 years, while raising her children.

She says science has always been her go-to subject. "I just have a passion for science. I really enjoy ... all of the 'aha!' moments kids have in science and explaining to them how all the different things in nature are related."

Witness to Stockinger's enthusiasm for science, school principal Scott Revoir encouraged her to apply for a Honeywell grant to attend Space Camp. He had attended the camp in 2010 and knew she'd enjoy it.

"Cheri is a very dedicated teacher who is always looking for ways to make science 'real' for her students. Her enthusiasm for science is contagious," he says.

So she pulled together three essays for the application and — much to her surprise — ended up receiving one of 20 grants that were awarded to an international pool of thousands of applicants.

The grant, totaling about $2,500, covered admission to Space Camp and all of her travel expenses.

At the site, she roomed with a participant from India. Other math and science teachers flew in from China — where astronauts are looking to reach to the Moon — Indonesia, Russia and other countries.

"It was very interesting because there were Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, and we were talking about space travel, which is a fascinating topic for everybody, especially students," she says.

Missions and simulations

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center, where Space Camp is held, serves as NASA's official Visitor Information Center for the Marshall Space Flight Center. Here, Stockinger fully immersed herself in a week of space-related activities meant to enhance her own knowledge of space exploration and equip her with new lesson ideas to promote science, technology, engineering and math in the classroom.

Dressed in a blue jumpsuit, similar to those worn by American astronauts, she strapped into a G-force simulator, experienced zero gravity, and participated in team missions meant to imitate actual astronaut training.

During the lunar mission, they were told an electrical storm had broken one of the windows on their spacecraft, she says. Wearing a full white spacesuit and helmet, she had to fix the window, working under the strain of poor lighting and a limited oxygen supply.

Asked if the rigorous training ever felt stressful, she laughed and countered with "it was wonderful!"

She crammed as much as she could into each day, living and breathing space from about 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., ready to sacrifice more sleep had there been more to explore.

While Stockinger enjoyed the hands-on activities, she also appreciated the lectures from astronauts and NASA engineers, along with the lesson planning sessions.

"You have access to things you don't normally have access to ... particularly in Minnesota," she says.

Launching 'egg-o-nauts'

Students in Stockinger's science class this year will soon pick up on her enthusiasm for space exploration, if they haven't already. 

To start out the school year, Stockinger had students research various mission patches and then design their own to personalize their notebooks. In the space world, a mission patch is an embroidered reproduction of a spaceflight mission worn by astronauts and personnel affiliated with that mission.

In the classroom, this activity gave way to creative interpretation — a school bus taking flight into space, new constellations and at least one cat astronaut.

In addition to having her students research space-related items, she will also be drawing from her newly expanded knowledge bank.

"I have all sorts of back-stories to bring to the classroom to add interest to whatever we're doing," she says.

For instance, she may preface their next group assignment with a story about NASA's Apollo program.

Working in teams, her students will be designing spacecrafts equipped with parachutes and an "egg-o-naut." They'll drop their spacecrafts off an outdoor landing, watching to see if each ship's passenger lands safely on the moon, shell intact.

Then they'll need to design a rover to transport their "egg-o-naut" across the lunar surface, she says, noting that'll complete the upcoming technology and engineering unit.

"I just have a whole bunch of brand new ideas that the students have never seen before that I am able to directly incorporate right away this year into my teaching," she says.

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

 

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