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NASA-Sponsored Teacher Workshops Are Expected To Launch Student-Inspired Experiments

White cabbage butterflies may soon be soaring through space as well as fluttering across your garden. The butterflies and special fast-growing plants will be the focus of a NASA-sponsored workshop for biology teachers in late July on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

At the workshop, these fifth-grade through high-school teachers will learn new ways to teach the principles of scientific investigation. The teachers will incorporate the new methods into their classrooms and use results from classroom research to propose experiments to fly on future space shuttles.

NASA is sponsoring the series of three workshops developed because it is interested in students becoming literate in space science, according to Coe Williams, program co-manager of the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “Today”s students are the next generation of space scientists,” she explains.

By encouraging science teachers to propose experiments for space flight, NASA hopes to increase student involvement in space research – and the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program (see sidebar) is an ideal way to do just that, Williams says. NASA carried Fast Plants experiments on a shuttle mission in 1997. The positive experiences of the students and teachers who participated in that research made NASA interested in working with the Fast Plants Program again.

Twenty-four teachers from across the country came to the UW-Madison campus July 29-31 for the second workshop, Williams says. The first workshop, held last November, was a success: already, a team of three of those teachers is planning to submit an experiment that may go up on a future shuttle.

At the workshops, teachers learn how to design experiments using the common white cabbage butterfly and a natural food source to test the effects of microgravity on the butterfly”s life cycle. By using turntables, rotisserie motors and fans to alter gravity slightly, teachers and their students can simulate how conditions in space might affect things like egg laying and pupation. For example, teachers from the first workshop are already asking whether the microgravity experiments may be causing butterflies to emerge from their chrysalises with crumpled wings.

Teachers who attended the workshops will also train other teachers. “In some cases, they already have a colleague they are mentoring,” says Williams. A team from the first workshop will present the program at an upcoming National Association of Biology Teachers meeting. That presentation will expose hundreds of other teachers to the program.

The program is a success for students and teachers alike, according to Williams. “The teachers are becoming researchers. There”s a tremendous energy and excitement as they work to nail down experimental designs and solve problems,” she says. “And teachers tell us that students are coming in early and after school to take care of an experiment. Everyone is enthusiastic because no one already knows the answers to the research questions-no one knows what is going to happen.”