NASA MAA Program: Succeeding Under A New Normal
By Nazrul Khandaker
The NASA-supported free MUREP Aerospace Academy (MAA) K1-12 Outreach Program at York College (City University of New York) faced a new challenge due to the COVID-19 pandemic health crisis, and successfully transitioned from a synchronous face-to-face in-class setting to virtual distance learning mode (DLM) this spring. COVID-19 forced all CUNY campuses, including York College, to offer virtual learning opportunities to students. MAA, being an outreach STEM program, also fell under the same category and swiftly came-up with a plan to move into DLM. Initial surveys indicated the basic house-hold technology needed to attend virtual sessions and showed complicated situations where parents had multiple children attending the spring 2020 session. To ensure greater participation, computers, iPads, Chromebooks, and cellphones were used. Common platforms like WebEx and Zoom were routinely used by our MAA teachers to disseminate online content delivery.
COVID-19 hit us directly when the spring session had already completed 60% of its STEM offerings to the students. MAA staff including teachers, aides, family focus groups, and administrators joined hands to devise a workable plan to launch DLM, in order to complete the remainder of the spring 2020 session. To face the “New Normal” like many of us, MAA staff diligently searched for best practices pertaining to online delivery of STEM contents to the students through established sources such as NASA, American Museum of Natural History, NASA Educators Online Network (NEON), and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). Carefully crafted grade-specific lessons and activities on rocketry, coding (python, raspberry, kahoot), programming, electric circuit building, flight simulation, GPS-supported weather tracking, stargazing, EV3 Mindstorm Lego and robotics, Martian habitat, and astronaut training – suitable in home-based settings – were introduced to the students
Parents positively commented and shared feedback. “I see this as an even better way of learning since the children have to think outside of the box. On top of being patient with the kids, he (teacher) helped me out tremendously as I tried to connect to the class and get it ready for my son.” “It’s priceless watching her do something she thought she would not enjoy that much.”
Family Focus Group (FFG) coordinators offered online conferences to keep parents well-aware of STEM contents and how these can be applied to students learning. Being an integral component of the MAA program, FFG works as a liaison to connect with the community and promote STEM education. In a way, the traditional classroom environment was brought back to individual homes, where both parents and students collaborated together, sought answers, and completed assignments concerning STEM lessons. Many younger students, particularly in elementary grades, were very excited to see their friends online and exchanging greetings via chat box. NASA MAA not only enables students to gain confidence in STEM-related concepts and applications, it creates a positive environment that promotes effective group dynamics, where social skills continue to flourish among the students. Thus, a team-building culture starts right from the beginning of the program – a powerful attribute where students feel comfortable to act, cooperate, respect, and successfully accomplish exercises. It is a gratifying situation, and MAA students and parents sincerely acknowledge such a unique education goal following the NASA Education Mission Directorate.
York College, located in Queens, is considered one of the most culturally diverse counties in the States. York College greatly enjoys STEM harmony and taking the lead since 1999 to educate, inspire, and engage young explorers from the community. The predecessor to the NASA MAA was the NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy, or SEMAA, which began in 1993, as a partnership between NASA Glenn Research Center and Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland, Ohio.
The legacy NASA program called SEMAA (Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy) was brought to the greater York community with the direct assistance of Congressman Gregory Meeks and Professor Jack Schlein (Emeritus Biology Faculty). Almost 28,000 underrepresented students participated in the NASA STEM program since 1999 and many graduated with STEM degrees. A notable one is Sandy Wills (class of 2000), who recently earned a Ph.D. in immunology from Duke University and was the guest of honor to address the spring 2020 class. Dr. Wills encouraged attending students to take full advantage of York’s MAA Program, and to think of a STEM career as one their future educational goals.
Aside from pivotal support from NASA, York’s MAA benefits from corporate sponsorships including ConEdison, AT&T, and National Grid. Additional corporate funding allows representative high school students to receive peer mentoring during the summer operation to become college ready. This experience is very crucial for urban students, where many lack the opportunity to continue to enrich their academic background during the summer. NASA MAA at York College is a true embodiment of a successful STEM Center due to its strategic partnerships among the federal agency like NASA, local legislative body, business enterprises, community-based youth groups, and the professional scientific society. Details of the free NASA MAA Program can be obtained by visiting https://www.york.cuny.edu/semaa