Opening Activities

"Students--Start Your Mental Engines!"

This Guide has two sections of suggestions for pre-flight training to prepare you and your students for the science and technology they'll encounter during this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. But before you brief them on the upcoming live missions, we hope you'll take time to have some important discussion with your students. We think it will be very useful for you as a teacher, and for those of us on the Materials Development Team, to understand more clearly what your students know before they begin this adventure. This valuable information will help fine-tune Live From the Stratosphere, through the near real-time interaction which the Internet makes possible, and also shape future Passport to Knowledge projects, such as Live from the Hubble Space Telescope and Live from Mars.

Activity 1:

Discussion: What do we know, and what do we think?


To help students explore what they know about astronomy and to create a baseline of knowledge that can be compared to what they know at the end of their journey.

A group discussion is a good way to prepare for Live From the Stratosphere. Set aside a whole period for this activity. Begin by asking your students some general questions, followed by more specific prompts to find out what most students know about earth's atmosphere, the Universe beyond and our tools for studying space. Many of the questions can be posed to students of any age, but they are arranged from easy to more difficult. There is no need to ask all of them. The goal of this discussion is not primarily to arrive at the "correct" answers or help students memorize definitions of scientific terms. Instead it is an open discussion among fellow knowledge-seekers. Encourage students to use what they know about their environment to speculate on what they don' know. Help them learn to comment on each others' ideas in an accepting manner. Different, even contradictory ideas can co-exist. Offering your own speculations or questions may help keep students from placing you in the role of the privileged expert. The importance of this opening discussion is find out what students know, and want to know about science in the stratosphere and beyond.

General Questions:

Starlight: Color, Light and Heat

Stars, Planets, and Moons

Open-Ended Questions

Sharing your Discoveries

There are a number of ways to collect and organize student responses. With younger students, it may be best to display ideas or questions being discussed, on a chalkboard or poster paper. This process helps keep the student discussion somewhat organized. These notes will be very useful in writing up a summary of the discussion. (A computer connected to an overhead projector would be ideal, but we realize such equipment is not yet standard classroom issue!)

A suggestion for older students is to have them discuss different ideas in small groups with group leaders and designated or elected "recorders". That way each group generates responses to a different set of prompts and later shares their ideas with the class. These summaries can be saved for comparison at the end of the experience and shared with other classrooms involved in Live From the Stratosphere (see below).

For a whole class activity, different students can take turns recording parts of the discussion. This makes it possible for all students to be active participants. Here are some ideas for organizing the summaries:

Internet Connection

We will have a Learning Center on-line ("Brainstorm-lfs") for you and your students to post a summary of these discussions. We are hoping that this articulation of what we know as a group, or want to find out, will be helpful as we take our electronic field trip together. Please include a note of your students' grade level, the subject you're teaching and the number of students involved.

Activity 2: Packing for the Stratosphere


To help students personalize the experience of doing astronomy in an airborne observatory, and to make them more aware of the process of scientific investigation.


Older students may have seen movies or tv documentaries about the great astronomical observatories on Earth: remote locations, a lone astronomer and an assistant in the middle of a calm, dark night, classical music gently playing. Ask students to describe what they think it will be like in an airborne observatory. Is it likely to be quiet or noisy, warm or cold, light or dark, comfortable or rugged, crowded or lonely, intense action or boring? Ask students what they would both need and want to take along if they were actually researchers on the flight.

Here is a list of "Carry On Items" that was supplied by astronomer Allan Meyer, who helped plan the LFS missions and will be the Tracker Operator (targeting the objects to be studied) during Live From the Stratosphere:

Especially if you choose to construct a mock-up of the KAO (Activity 2B, page 34), you might want to have students assemble travel kits with similar materials to prepare for their flight. What would they bring along and why? What aspects of the astronomical research, or the physical environment, require the various items? How would they keep track of what they saw and thought? What will the astronomers and research team wear when they are working? Suits and ties, space suits, uniforms, jeans? How would your students dress for this trip, and what would they take with them? Hint: watch for Juan Rivera's comments on Nomex.

Activity 3: Keeping an Astronomer's Log


To have each student articulate and record their experiences during the entire electronic field trip.

An important part of science is keeping careful notes of what you see when you see it, and what you think is happening. Observation and self-observation are critical for good science.

Have your students create an Astronomer's Log to use throughout this project. Every time you do a hands-on activity, watch a video, go on-line or have a class discussion, suggest your students spend 5 or so minutes at the conclusion to write up their reactions in their Logs. Encourage students to note their questions as well as their observations. This personal record of their own flights in the stratosphere can later serve as part of a portfolio assessment. This is an activity we suggest for every student. The "Mission Logbook" is designed for use during the actual observing missions, to help record astronomical and aircraft data.

Encourage students to gather ideas from a wide range of sources including fiction. Students might want to review StarTrek or other space-related videos or movies, and think about the ways writers and directors describe space. Practice media literacy by looking out for odd inferences or assumptions about the Universe as they appear in popular culture. Which way, in fact, is "up" in Michael and Janet Jackson's Scream video?


QUESTION: Why do you (use) an airplane instead of the Space Shuttle?

ANSWER: from Ben Burress, KAO Tracker Operator

For a number of reasons, actually, not the least of which is that the Space Shuttle was not in full operation when the astronomy community and NASA wanted to build an airborne astronomy platform. Other than that fact, Space Shuttle flights are very expensive, and happen no more than six to eight times per year--whereas the KAO flies at a tiny fraction of the cost of a shuttle flight, and we achieve between eighty and ninety flights per year.

But consider this: as far as the infrared sky is concerned, the KAO practically flies in space, anyway. You see, the main reason we fly a telescope at 41,000 feet is so that we can get above about 99% of the Earth's atmospheric water vapor, which is one of the main absorbers of infrared light. Taking the extra step only reduces the amount of water vapor between our telescope and the celestial objects by 1% of the whole. That is not very significant when one considers how much more expensive it would be and how many fewer flights we would get flying on the space shuttle.

QUESTION Who or what was the Kuiper Airborne Observatory named after?

ANSWER: from Ted Dunham, KAO Project

The Kuiper Airborne Observatory is named for Gerard P. Kuiper, a Dutch-born astronomer who became well known for numerous discoveries mainly in the area of planetary astronomy. He discovered several satellites of planets, and pioneered the use of infrared (heat) detectors in astronomy.

It was while working on infrared planetary astronomy that he became frustrated with the problem of obscuration by water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. This is a particularly nasty problem if the astronomer is trying to detect the small amount of water vapor on Mars, for example, while peering through the much larger amounts of water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. He surveyed high altitude, dry, observatory sites in an effort to reduce the amount of water vapor obscuration, and finally made use of a NASA airplane (a Convair 990) for some critical observations. His pioneering use of an airplane for astronomy is the reason the Kuiper Airborne Observatory has the name it does.

QUESTION: How do you pronounce the name "Kuiper"?

ANSWER: from Marc Siegel, NASA K-12 Internet Initiative:

The way that Kuiper is pronounced is "Ky-Per". It rhymes with "Piper", like the Pied Piper. Or "wiper", like windshield wiper.

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