• Buz Carpenter stands next to the SR-71 Blackbird in the lobby of the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson in August 2017. Carpenter was a pilot who flew SR-71 Blackbird planes as a pilot and instructor from 1975 to 1981. About two weeks ago, Carpenter gave a video conferencing presentation from the lobby of the Cosmosphere and interacted with students that were in their Harmony Middle School classroom in Overland Park. [Sandra J. Milburn/HutchNews]

  • The Cosmosphere is expanding its education curriculum by offering a new online-based program using GoToMeeting video conferencing software that enables people in the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson to be able to interact with students as they sit in their classrooms. [File photo/HutchNews]

  • Ben Neust causes an explosion by using a flame to light a large cotton ball that was soaked in liquid oxygen during the Dr. Goddard\'s Lab show at the Cosmosphere, Monday morning, Oct. 24, 2016. The Cosmosphere is now using GoToMeeting video conferencing software where they will be able to interact with students anywhere in the world and show them all of what the Cosmosphere has to offer, including Dr. Goddard\'s lab. [Sandra J. Milburn/HutchNews]

Cosmosphere offers new web-based programs to help schools teach by long distance

Saturday, October 28, 2017

When the sixth-graders at Harmony Middle School were studying space in social studies, librarian Ronda Hassig decided to take the students to the Cosmosphere.

There wasn't anything unusual about that. Students have been coming to Hutchinson for years to learn about space, science and history at the Smithsonian-affiliated museum.

What was different this time, however, is neither the students nor teachers left Overland Park.

Instead, the school in the Blue Valley District near Kansas City was one of the first to take advantage of a new online-based curriculum that will allow the Cosmosphere to take its museum and its network of experts to students across the country, and eventually, around the world.

"They used to go to the Cosmosphere every year for a field trip. But they haven't been the past couple of years," Hassig said. "Anymore, getting kids on a bus and taking them a long distance is becoming more difficult. It's a whole-day deal. Here, you can just pull it up, you see the artifact talk to someone who knows what they're talking about. And we're just sitting in the classroom. It really is the wave of the future."

This kind of curriculum has only been available for the past two weeks, but it's been under development the past three years, said Tracey Tomme, vice president of education at the Cosmosphere. The goal was to take education resources available through the museum and go beyond the four-hour run-through of the museum, the kind of field trips schools had been taking for years.

"You can ask a middle-schooler, 'What did you think of the Apollo 13 capsule?' and they don't even remember seeing it, which is kind of heartbreaking," Tomme said.

The staff began building a curriculum students would remember.

"They can learn about history but they have to be able to answer the question 'Why do I care?' which every middle-schooler wonders: 'Why do I care about Algebra?' " Tomme said. "We have to make it relevant to them."

It also has to fit the aim of the teachers and their schools.

"We looked at state standards, what they're teaching and what they need," Tomme said. "Because not every teacher is an astrophysicist, in addition to all the other subjects they have to teach. We have that expertise available to us."

The sixth-graders at Harmony were joined by eighth-graders in September to hear Buz Carpenter, a retired pilot who flew the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. Carpenter gave a presentation from Hutchinson, using GoToMeeting video conferencing software.

"He was standing right in front of the SR-71 with the Space Shuttle behind him," Hassig said. "It was tremendous. If you're an Air Force Academy pilot, you're kind of a stud anyway, but he had a way with kids that had them glued for the whole 60 minutes they were with him. He was just really, really awesome to listen to. It was like we were in the room with him."

Early next year, Tomme and her staff will take their new program to a trade show in London, where they'll introduce Europe to the Cosmosphere. They already have staff members who can interpret programs into Spanish and German. School systems buy the programs and curriculum from the Cosmosphere.

The museum offers curriculum including the "Space Race," which is still going on today with going to Mars in its sights, Tomme said, and "Space Junk," which examines how humans will have to deal with the science of litter left from our exploration programs. But the Cosmosphere can tailor any of its learning for schoolchildren of any age.

"We can take our Goddard Lab program and using GoToMeeting, deliver it anywhere in the world," Tomme said.

And there are the questions every middle school student has about space, which only an expert can answer.

"How do you go to the restroom in space?" one Harmony Middle School boy asked Carpenter.

"Well, we use this thing, kind of like a condom ..." Hassig remembered Carpenter answering.

"I had six administrators with me and their eyes got really wide," Hassig said. "The kids, they didn't even flinch."