Penn Elementary School STEM teacher uses NASA resources in lessons
Posted on 05/31/2018
Penn ES Students working on a STEM project

This school year the lesson theme in the STEM lab at Penn Elementary was “All About Water.”  STEM teacher LoriAnn Pawlik began by teaching her students about the relationships between the earth, moon and sun, which led into lessons about seasons and tides.

As a starting point for teaching students how to read and interpret graphs, Pawlik turned to a lesson plan on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA-JPL) education website called “How to read a heat map.” Pawlik’s use of this lesson and its extension resulted in being spotlighted in NASA-JPL’s first ever teacher feature column this past January.

Using NASA-JPL’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE mission satellite, students studied water mass movement over a one-year period for six different states. They also used a bathymetry data map from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study the basic geological topography of the sea floor and marine life.

Data from NOAA and NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer Satellite (ACES) images helped students track the movements of a sea lion named Karana over three months. Karana gave students a glimpse into the life of a marine species as she traveled through the Channel Islands and down into Baja California. The study showed students how far some animals travel and encouraged students to draw conclusions as to why they do so. The experience inspired the school to adopt a loggerhead sea turtle named Sally. Loggerhead sea turtles are an endangered species.

“Basically, Sally is a tool for me to use in supporting our Virginia Standards of Learning tests on aquatic ecosystems, habitats, adaptations, life cycle, food webs, migrations, data, and the impact of humans on the environment,” she explained.

Recently, Pawlik’s unique lesson plan using NASA-JPL’s GRACE satellites was shared online as a resource for other teachers.

In addition to NOAA and NASA, Pawlik also uses students’ parents as a tool for learning. She invited her students and their parents to the Occoquan River for trash removal. In a water sampling activity, students counted macroinvertebrates, determined pH levels, turbidity, dissolved oxygen levels, temperature, and other factors to determine the health of a local stream. 

“It shows students the amount of pollution that flows in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the importance of adults modeling for children how to take care of the world,” she said.