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Students Reach for the Stars After Skype Call with World-Class Astronomer

A guest blog post by teacher Shawn Avery from Dennett Elementary School in Plympton, Massachusetts.

How can I connect concepts my students are learning about to real world experiences? That’s the question that teachers ponder every day. It’s easy to throw a math problem up on the board for children to solve or show them a picture of animals as we learn about habitats. But the question always remains, why is this important? Why do we need to know how to add fractions? Why do we need to learn about animal habitats? Without allowing students to make connections to their own lives, learning is never truly authentic.

Teaching in a small rural town, about 30 minutes outside of Boston, Massachusetts, my sixth grade class doesn’t always have easy access to people and places outside of school. However, technology has provided new opportunities to bring innovative learning opportunities into the classroom. I have turned to Skype in the classroom many times to allow the children of my class to meet students, teachers, and other people outside of our own community.  We’ve learned about weather on a Skype call with meteorologist Kevin Lemanowicz from Fox 25 News in Boston. We gained a better understanding of geology by bringing a park ranger from Yellowstone into our classroom via Skype. We’ve strengthened our geography skills by playing Mystery Skype with classes across the United States, as well as in Brazil and England. All of these are just the tip of the iceberg as to how we’ve used Skype in the classroom and how we can continue to use it in the future.

One day I saw a tweet pop up on my Twitter feed from @SkypeClassroom asking if anyone would be interested in a Skype call with an astronomer Dr. Carol Christian of the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Teaching a unit on space this year, I jumped at the opportunity. My class was beyond excited to speak with her and learn all about her work. We spent some time researching Dr. Christian, learning about her work on the Hubble Telescope. We found a TEDx talk she had done which led us on a journey through the universe and all that Hubble has done to give us a better view of the vast expanse beyond our solar system.

As the familiar ringing of a Skype call rang through the classroom, my students smiled with anticipation. When Dr. Christian answered, we were greeted by her warm smile and a wonderful view of a Hubble replica in the background. Her interesting facts along with her sense of humor immediately had the students hooked! She made sure to save plenty of time for questions, knowing that students were extremely inquisitive and would have some great prompts for discussion. One of the questions that students seemed especially excited to hear the answer to was “What is the most amazing thing you have seen through the Hubble Telescope?” Having looked through the HubbleSite gallery we had seen some of the incredible images collected by Hubble since its launch in 1990. Dr. Christian shared with us that she had previously been tasked with trying to help choose which objects in space the Hubble Telescope would capture for each year, as there were a limited number of images her team would be able to process and study. She said it was one of the toughest things she’s had to do because of the amount of amazing pictures it has taken. It’s provided images of planets, comets, galaxies, and so much more so it was hard to pick just one specific thing.

Not all of the questions related directly to being an astronomer. One of those asked was “Do you get nervous when you start something new and do you worry that it won’t turn out the way that you want?” Dr. Christian answered by talking about how she really enjoys trying new things. She mentioned how she always likes when something turns out exactly the way that you hoped it would but sometimes when it doesn’t, you learn something that you never expected to.

We learned an incredible amount from Dr. Carol Christian during our call. If the goal is to get students excited about learning, she definitely helped in achieving that goal. Even after the call had ended, students were still asking questions, wanting to learn even more about Hubble and the universe. They also kept saying how much they loved getting to talk to Dr. Christian and that they couldn’t wait to use Skype again.

Skype in the classroom has taken us across the United States, four other continents, and now into space! Skype has truly helped us to break down the walls of our classroom to help make our learning global. As educators, we always look to connect students to the concepts we’re learning. Skype in the classroom and Dr. Carol Christian provided us with an opportunity that the students won’t ever forget and will help make our unit on space even more meaningful.

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