From fish DNA to Mars: STEM programmes inspire kids
LIVING on Mars would be “the coolest thing ever,” says Taryn Langtry, a student at Moravia High School. On a trip to Cornell’s Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility last year with her eighth-grade science class, she was astonished to learn that the red planet might actually be within reach in her lifetime.
“I always thought it was super impossible to get to Mars, but after that workshop I thought maybe we’ll actually get there some day,” says Langtry. “We learned about how we could die on Mars, then we got to brainstorm ways to survive, and we put all our ideas together in groups.”
Moravia Middle School teacher Megan Newhouse used the Cornell University programme, better known as “SPIF” to its would-be spacemen and spacewomen, as the keystone of a semester-long project about Mars. Children here on Earth have been exploring space through SPIF’s programmes for almost 40 years, says SPIF data manager Zoe Learner Ponterio. With programmes on Cornell’s campus and in school classrooms all over the region, SPIF shares images and data from Nasa’s past and present planetary missions, artefacts and space-exploration technology with roughly 4,000 school-age children every year – enrichment programmes that help bring the excitement and possibility of space to New York state’s next generation.
“One of my favourite parts of the job is hearing the amazing response from kids,” says Ponterio. “You can see it in their faces – they can suddenly see themselves being a part of this someday. Some kids – especially young girls – come up and hug me after these workshops. There’s the feeling you’ve made this impact; it’s an amazing thing to see.”
SPIF’s outreach programmes are just one example of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programmes Cornell carries out all over New York state that help children get a leg up in a wide variety of fields. From space exploration to computer coding workshops to molecular biology lessons in the field, these programmes enhance the educational experience and open up new career possibilities for thousands of students ranging from preschool age up through high school.
“Public engagement is a core value of Cornell,” says Katherine McComas, vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs. “These STEM programmes enable us to connect with educators and students across New York state and beyond.”
From the Grass River near the border with Canada to the Hudson to the tributaries of the Allegheny River in the Southern Tier, the FishTracker programme gets children out of the classroom for hands-on science in the great outdoors. Participating students sample surface water in the search for traces of DNA from invasive fish species, essentially becoming citizen scientists who help Cornell track the locations of invasive fish in New York’s waterways.
“The idea that they were doing something meaningful and collecting samples that would be used and are part of science happening now made the students much more engaged than if we just talked about invasive fish species or analysed data that had nothing to do with them,” says Laura Austen, a biology teacher at Ernie Davis Academy in Elmira, which draws students mostly from urban neighbourhoods. Austen took her ninthgrade biology students on a field trip to Cayuga Lake to sample water at Taughannock Falls State Park. “Kids love doing ‘real’ science. They were able to see what and where invasive fish were on the website map, and now our results are there as well.”
– Cornell News
Students from Loughlin Memorial High School in New York City sample water from the Hudson River to help identify invasive species for the FishTracker programme.
Taryn Langtry at Cornell’s Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility.