NASA is helping a U of M professor bring space sciences to Memphis-area K-12 classrooms

Long before cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the plant, humans dreamt of leaving earth for the unknown.

But understanding the many jobs and complex math and sciences behind the adventure can be mind-boggling. It can also be off-putting to kids who dream of working for organization like NASA or SpaceX but don't know how to get there. 

Now, NASA is pitching in to inspire a new generation of dreamers in the Mid-South towards careers in space sciences.

“Most science curricula, when students are learning it, the impression is ‘this was done in the 12th century and the 13th century, where is the relevance.’ It comes across as rather boring and dull. That is what we want to try and fix,” said Dr. Firouzeh Sabri.
Dr. Firouzeh Sabri, associate professor and chair at the University of Memphis' Department of Physics. (University of Memphis)
Sabri is associate professor and chair at the University of Memphis' Department of Physics and Materials Science.

The university announced in October that she won a $125,000 grant from NASA STEM to fund the launch of a program that helps local K-12 educators give their students a deeper trip into the sciences of space.  

“This is meant to supplement what they are teaching so students have new opportunities. They recognize that the content in the textbook is actually being utilized in research laboratories that help pave the way for future generations and innovations,” said Sabri.

Educators will have access to printable and web-based materials, activities, projects, and more. Students will have a chance to connect to professionals in physics, engineering, and other related fields.  Participating classrooms may also have the opportunity for a back-and-forth with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, although the logistics may take a bit of planning.

“Coordination is going to be a bit challenging because we won’t be able to find the time that works for everyone, for every school. Definitely, we’ll try to do the best that we can to find a time slot that is convenient as possible,” said Sabri.

Sabri hopes to reach as many students as possible. Any classroom can join the program, though the focus is on the greater Memphis area. So far, she said interest has been brisk.

Nearly 100 classrooms signed up for a Q&A Zoom session on short notice, and roughly 30 educators have already download materials for their classrooms. She doesn't have an exactly count for good reason. 

"Under normal circumstances we would have had a logging system set up. But these days, nothing is normal, and our goal was to make it easy for schools to get the content with no strings attached," she said. 

Sabri said the grant covers the pilot phase, but she hopes it will grow from there. 

“This will not stop when [this] funding runs out. We are hoping to continue this and refine it for future years,” she said.

Ideally, it will follow a student from its K-4 programming all the way through its high school materials.

According to NASA, students are able to participate in activities focusing on the same mission area such as aeronautics, human exploration, science and science technology as they progress through their academic career. 

A Cutting-Edge Opportunity
Participating teachers can choose from a range of offering from one-page activities to complex projects like developing an app. Students can work with professionals like Sabri and submit their final products to NASA. This approach aims to make learning about science more relatable for students.

According to NASA, the NASA STEM provides a combination of virtual and face-to-face resources through student and educator webinars, badges, and bilingual resources to reach the greatest number of students.

Classrooms will be exposed to cutting-edge research. For example, Sabri will share insights into her extensive work with materials like aerogels and composites, which have informed space missions aimed to at better understanding what's happening outside of the atmosphere. Her work has even been on Mars

In February, samples of Sabri's aerogels and composites are slated to be placed on an external arm of the International Space Station for four months. The effects will be measured and used to inform future research and a potential topic for classroom discussion.

“The end goal is to take this information that I published, this information that we have had to work through, and convert them into content that fits into physics, chemistry, and possibly even math,” said Sabri.

On Dec. 18, NASA announced the 18 astronauts it's selected for the Artemis III team. Among its future missions will be a return to the moon. It will be the first mission to the lunar surface since the Apollo program disbanded and an eventual jumping-off point to manned missions to Mars.
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Read more articles by Jim Coleman and Cole Bradley.