NASA reviews city SEMAA Program

May 4, 2011

By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Students in Martinsville Schools are getting fired up about learning, especially with the NASA SEMAA (Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Aerospace Academy) program.

On Tuesday, national SEMAA officials visited the city schools to check on the progress of the program, which was established at Martinsville Middle School in 2002. It serves students in the city’s two elementary schools as well as the middle school, and efforts are under way to expand its reach.

The site is one of 14 in the United States and the only one in Virginia. NASA SEMAA officials visit once or twice a year.

“We visit the sites to get an idea of how the project is being carried out and to interact with the students and site directors,” said Clarence Jones, NASA SEMAA project coordinator.

"We have a checklist of project management standards and criteria that we look for, and we make certain that the site is maintaining those standards,” he said.

Some of those standards are that each site administers to a minimal number of students each year and that each has adequate equipment.

This school year, Martinsville City Schools received $125,000 from NASA for SEMAA activities, an increase over past years. Anne Stultz, the school system’s SEMAA site director, said the money was used to reach out to Girl Scouts and to fund more field trips, materials and supplies to enhance lessons.

School officials have incorporated robotics, a SEMAA program, into high school classrooms, and there are plans to expand the presence of SEMAA programs in the high school.

NASA SEMAA Project Manager Darlene Walker said more money could be granted to the program next year depending on the direction it takes.

The purpose of the program is to get youth interested in math and science and to inspire them to pursue careers or studies in science, technology, engineering or math — the STEM fields.

NASA conducts surveys at the end of each quarter. A recent survey found that 84 percent of the students in SEMAA programs want to pursue a STEM career or studies.

“SEMAA challenges the students, and it’s all hands-on learning,” said Joy Johnston, a seventh-grade teacher at Martinsville Middle School. “It makes learning fun, and it shows them how math is used in everyday life.”

“It involves a lot of design, engineering, problem solving and a lot of thinking outside of the box,” she said.

The lesson for her seventh-graders on Tuesday was called “Heavy Lifting.” The students made balloon-powered rockets to launch paper clips to the ceiling.

Other programs focus on space and the stars.

“We learn new stuff like the moon and the planets, and we get to do fun experiments,” said Jovana Hernandez, a fourth-grader at Albert Harris Elementary School. “We get to see how much we weigh on the moon by dividing it by six.” A person’s weight on the moon is about one-sixth of her weight on Earth because of the difference in gravity, students learned.

The program also provides several field trips. Stultz said that she takes a group of students on a trip every 12 weeks. They recently went to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton. They also have traveled to a planetarium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“We teach aerospace stuff here, but then the students are able to connect that to real life stuff, and that’s what we wanted,” Stultz said. “At Langley, they saw liquid nitrogen and the wings made out of honeycomb ... they are exposed to so much more, things they don’t get to see locally.”

The SEMAA site brings in students from outside the school system as well. It recently hosted a group of Girl Scouts from surrounding counties to get girls interested in science. The visit also earned the girls their aviation badges.

“Our students are fortunate to have this site. It gives them more of the outside world,” said Stultz.

“Martinsville’s SEMAA site is one of our prized locations. There’s a lot of great things going on at Martinsville SEMAA,” said Jones.

Later Tuesday, students who have completed a certain number of credits through the SEMAA program were honored during an event at Martinsville High School. Dena Fatade was there because she has two sons in SEMAA programs, fourth-grader Sola and seventh-grader Sayo.

“I like the fact that it’s enhancing the SOLs they’re learning for math and science,” Fatade said. “They get exposed to things they wouldn’t normally be exposed to.”

Sola said he likes doing experiments, while Sayo said his experiences using the SEMAA lab at the middle school and going on a flight simulator helped inspire him to become a pilot one day.


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