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Vina T.R.A.C.K.S. intros NASA program for students

Students at Vina High School T.R.A.C.K.S Extended Day Program are playing a role in the U.S. Department of Education’s ongoing effort to solve a national problem – the critical shortage of students with mastery of science, technology, engineering and math skills.

Through a collaboration between the Vina T.R.A.C.K.S Program and NASA, local students are conducting scientific observations of the natural environment and are learning the relevance of STEM skills to daily life. Students will learn about the engineering design process so they can develop solutions to real NASA challenges, such as designing a Crew Exploration Vehicle and pressure suits for astronauts. Students will be immersed in the scientific investigation techniques, such as data gathering, designing and testing to see if their design is a success.

T.R.A.C.K.S lead teacher Paula Jackson admits she was slightly intimidated when she learned of this new “course of study” she will share with her students over the next eight to ten weeks. In the classroom, Jackson is a reading coach. But after an intensive two-day training, and with assistance from Franklin County Extension’s Jacob Blackbridge, Jackson said she is excited to offer the unique, hands-on learning opportunity for students.

“It introduces a variety of things they don’t see on a daily basis, like the engineering design process,” said Jackson, praising the academic enrichment students will experience. “They are going to get to meet professionals who are employed with NASA, and maybe they can identify with these disciplines, and this will be motivation for them to aspire to big things.”

Blackbridge will assist in implementing the program at Vina, helping to immerse the students in practical math and science lessons.

“They are going to be making scale models, but they are going to be required to make the parameters close to it would be in real life, just on a smaller scale model,” Blackbridge said. He said the program has worked with NASA to lay out distinct steps in the process to guide students, and the students will have the opportunity to talk with NASA professionals as well as, at the end of the program, video conference with an astronaut so “they can see how their work translates to real life,” Blackbridge added.

Since NASA first became a 21st Century Community Learning Centers partner in 2013, available programs have grown from 20 sites in three states to nearly 200 sites across 20 states in 2016. Vina High School will be one out of seven schools across the state of Alabama to participate in NASA program for education.

“We have a strong need for people who are really interested in math and science and technology. So many students seem to stay away from it,” Blackbridge said. “It can be scary and overwhelming, but we want to show them it can be fun and exciting and there are opportunities out here for careers in math and science.”

Jackson added, “We’ve got a lot of incentives and things to motivate them, and it’s going to be fun for them. It will be education, but it’ll be fun.”