MANKATO — East High School math teacher Emily Dauk launched a satellite, docked space shuttles onto the International Space Station and drove a rover on Mars.
They were actually all simulations. But they were the very real same simulations used by astronauts and NASA engineers.
Dauk was among a group of Minnesota teachers invited to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston earlier this month. In addition to touring the center and experiencing some of its training replicas, she got to meet an astronaut, try on astronaut gear and more.
She also tested a mock satellite launcher designed and built by students from another Minnesota school in NASA's testing facility. East High School students now are building a mock launcher of their own.
Dauk, who is a new algebra teacher at East, was among 60 educators chosen to participate in NASA's Microgravity University for Educators.
The program invites groups of teachers to learn about NASA curriculum resources for educators while experiencing the space center and testing a device they engineered with their students. All expenses are paid by NASA and the participants are asked to return home and share the resources they discovered with their colleagues.
Dauk, who is a 2007 East graduate, recalls receiving an email from a college friend with the subject: “Want to go to NASA?” She decided yes before she even opened the email to read the details.
She joined a team that included her friend and two other teachers from Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights and a science teacher at a middle school in Apple Valley.
Students from Saint Thomas Academy participated in the engineering challenge. NASA sent a pretend satellite and a box of random materials such as straws and bungee cords and the students had to build a device to launch the satellite into a target. The launcher and satellite were placed on moving bases in the same testing facility used by real NASA scientists that mimics microgravity.
Five East students now are working before and after school to build a launcher of their own. There is no second visit to NASA, extra credit or any other tangible reward, only the satisfaction of accomplishing the challenge.
Dauk's favorite experiences at NASA were inside the same mock spacecraft used by astronauts. In a virtual reality mock International Space Station she got to try to dock a spacecraft and to use a remote controlled arm to capture a cargo shipment. She also got to drive a rover around a virtual reality replica of mars and discovered that it won't overturn even when you drive it off a small cliff.
Dauk said she is “always looking for ways to show students algebra is applicable in real life” and she came back from NASA with a long list of ideas.
“I have so many ideas my head is spinning,” she said.
She spent last week telling her students about her NASA experience and making the first of what she expects will be multiple presentations sharing NASA resources with colleagues.
The many fascinating people she said she got to meet at NASA included astronaut Ricky Arnold, the chief technology director of Nanoracks (a company involved in the commercial utilization of space) and a designer of astronaut suits. Equally inspiring, she said, were the the other educators from across the country with whom she toured NASA.
“In addition to the incredible NASA resources and experiences I had that I will be able to draw from for years to come, I also interacted with some of the best educators in the nation, including two National STEM Teacher of the Year winners,” she wrote on her blog. “Having the opportunity to work and learn with such skilled and passionate teachers was incredible.”