“The whole purpose, I think, of going to space and looking into the cosmos is to solve problems on Earth,” Mason said. “Meeting impassioned educators, physicists, and astronauts ignited this new spark. I’m not just teaching kids how to use computers and be ready for the workforce. I’m starting to get them excited about wondering, getting into new ideas, and solving problems.”
The camp hosts thousands of educators every year in its basic teacher training session, but far fewer attend a second year for the advanced teacher training. Mason attended the basic training in the summer of 2017 and returned in July of 2018 for the advanced session.
She underwent various simulations, such as a three-hour mission to mars, landing a space shuttle on the moon, a crash landing where she careened down a zip line into a lake, and performing mechanical repairs while submerged in a 24-foot tank of water to simulate zero gravity. In addition to being a lot of fun, those experiences are meant to simulate an environment where you are completely reliant on a team of people.
In space, there is no calling a plumber or roadside assistance. When something breaks, it’s up to a team of astronauts to diagnose the problem and come up with a solution – a skill Mason is bringing back to the classroom.
“The whole purpose, I think, of going to space and looking into the cosmos is to solve problems on Earth.” – Dana Mason
Mason incorporates robotics, circuitry, and coding into her curriculum, which is a lot of fun for students. But getting students to think about how those skills can be used to solve the world’s many problems is another challenge altogether.
Even in elementary school, students are often taught to prioritize learning science over creative fields. Mason says this is a false choice, and space camp reinforced that idea for her.
“I teach how certain technologies can be reapplied to solve real world issues,” Mason said. “Looking at pollution and climate control in our world are really important, so it’s not just I get in a rocket ship and then what.”
Dana Mason didn’t always teach science and technology. She was a music teacher for eight years after studying clarinet at NYU. Her creative studies now benefit her students at Henry Harris Community School, where the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, and math) has added an “A” for “arts.”
“Going from music into technology is something very different, and I didn’t realize there was such a connection,” she said. “When I switched over I didn’t know what to expect. The creative process and I how I figured things out I drew from my creative background, which includes a lot of discipline with math and logic. It helps you process things differently. I realized that and started infusing that into a lot of my lessons.”
Code and climate
Also this summer, Mason is attending a code.org workshop at The College of New Jersey to help her teach her students more about coding. She was also sponsored by Honeywell to conduct an ecology and urban sustainability workshop with her classes. In the modern classroom, environmental issues and climate change are often front and center, and NASA scientists helped reinforce that. By teaching about other planets, Mason hopes students can see how climate changes on Earth.
“The students are still young, but you can see they’re aware of climate change,” Mason said. “I don’t think they know how it affects them yet. Seeing a planet that may have had riverbeds and lush life that we’re seeing evidence of could really blow open the issue for a lot of people. When you have the evidence in your hand, you want to make as many changes as possible.”
By having fun while learning at space camp, Mason is now better prepared to engage her students and prepare them for a lifetime of learning.
“When you give them something they’re engaged in, and they enjoy learning, they start to dig in more,” she said.
Mason knew she wanted to be a music teacher very early in life, but most kids in her classes are not thinking about careers yet. Her job is to incite wonder.
“Wherever their wonder takes them, there will be a job,” she said. “There will be something. You just have to be prepared for it.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at email@example.com.