Volume 76, Number 36 | January 31 - February 6, 2007

Photo by William Alatriste/New York City Council

Jenny Kwong, 14, center, and her Shuang Wen Academy classmate Shan Win, 14, demonstrated a wind tunnel test station to Councilmember Alan Gerson last week at NASA’s Space Center at Corlears Junior High School.

Space cadets’ look to stars at new learning center

By Brooke Edwards

It looks nothing like your ordinary classroom.

Stars hang from the ceiling of Room 100 at Corlears Junior High on the Lower East Side. There is a giant flight simulator projected onto a 3-foot half-dome in the corner. The room — decorated in a futuristic color scheme of black, silver and gray — is filled with 13 computer stations surrounded by model airplanes and space shuttles, remote-controlled robots and satellite photographs of Earth.

At the front of the room stood Jenny Ingber, science teacher and coordinator of the laboratory. She wore a long white lab coat over her fuzzy sweater — a contrast that matched her professional but warm personality.

In a rare moment for a room full of 27 fifth-graders, every head was facing forward, every squirming body still and every voice hushed as they watched Ingber demonstrate thrust by letting the air out of a balloon.
Minutes later, students were laughing and talking loudly as paper airplanes sailed across the room and 10-year-olds discussed which wing shape would give their planes the least drag.

Nicole Murray, who came to help chaperone her daughter’s class, took it all in with a smile. She said that her daughter Mecca, 10, had been looking forward to the fieldtrip all week.

“She was excited to come and try the plane simulator,” Murray said. She anticipated that after her visit, Mecca will want to be a pilot.

This unique lesson in aeronautics took place last Tuesday, as Katherine Doctor’s fifth-grade science class from P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side took a fieldtrip to the Region 9 Space Center, housed in Corlears on Henry St.

The Space Center is part of an educational outreach program started by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. There are currently 37 NASA space centers across the U.S., though most are housed in colleges. This is the first space center in a New York City public school.

The Space Center is open to all schools in the area during or after the regular school day and offers curricula for fourth-through-12th-grade science and mathematics classes. Eventually, the center hopes to also host community family nights, clubs, summer programs and competitions.

In addition to the lesson on aeronautics presented to Doctor’s class, the lab offers a session on microgravity, teaching students what it’s like to live and work in space.

And the Aeronautics Laboratory in Room 100 is only the first of three phases that will eventually be a part of the Space Center. Construction is just beginning on the Challenger Center next door — where students will be able to simulate trips to the moon — and a space station nodule replica across the hall.

Activity at the center has been a little slow, with just over 20 classes from Chinatown and the Lower East Side schools visiting since its opening in September. But those involved expect there will one day be a waiting list to bring students to the center.

Dr. Frank Scalzo, a NASA education program specialist, brought the idea of a space center to the New York City Council three years ago.

Although NASA cannot support the Space Center financially, since its current educational funding has been depleted, Scalzo said, “We’ll support the lab on our end with technology and learning and competitions.”

The official ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony for the Space Center was held Thursday morning, Jan. 18. More than 70 people attended the ceremony, including the 20 students selected to welcome visitors and demonstrate the lab, and City Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Alan Gerson.

The $750,000 Space Center is the pet project of Gerson. At the ceremony, Gerson reluctantly paused during his turn on the flight simulator in order to speak.

“I’ve decided that I need to re-enroll in middle school,” Gerson said, clearly enjoying his time behind the joystick.

That is the idea behind the new facility — or, as Gerson said, “This aerospace lab says learning can be fun and educational at the same time.”

Corlears was a failing school three years ago. It was closed last June and reopened in July with three separate programs inside, though it still struggles as a low-performing school. Gerson said Corlears was chosen as the home for the Space Center to show that the city is dedicated to improving local schools.

“This lab shows our community that we are committed to a thorough and outstanding science education for our children,” he said. “220 Henry St. will be known as the center for science education and innovation.”

The students, like Ingber, all wearing white lab coats, had nothing but positive things to say about the Space Center.

Emmy Kuo, 13, an eighth-grader at Shuang Wen School, a bilingual Chinese-English public school on the Lower East Side, said, “Before I came, I didn’t even know what a wind tunnel was.” But during the event, Kuo was articulately explaining to visitors how the wind tunnel works.

Jia Fei Shi, 13, another student from Shuang Wen, now wants to be a pilot. He said he learns a great deal each time he comes to the lab. He demonstrated the flight-planning station, noting, “I learn how the wing affects how the plane will fly.”

Marc Adorno, a 17-year-old senior at the NEST school, said he hopes to work someday for NASA. Gerson said he is confident that students like Adorno will make it that far.

“What we are saying with this laboratory,” Gerson told the students, “is that you have the opportunity to grow up to be the future engineers and aeronautics designers and astronauts.”

Gerson also asked the smiling students to please “save me a seat on your first trip to the moon.”

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