A school assembly that's out of this world

Monta Loma hosts live Q&A with astronauts aboard International Space Station

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station dazzled students at Monta Loma Elementary last week, performing one-finger push-ups, suspending globes of fluid mid-air and floating effortlessly in a tight cabin about 250 miles above the Earth's surface.

Witnessing gravity-defying feats are just some of the ways students at the school got to interact with NASA astronaut Scott Tingle and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai in a live video feed March 2 between the space station and Monta Loma's multipurpose room, where students got a chance to ask rapid-fire questions about what it's like to live on a satellite hurtling around Earth at 17,500 mph.

Astronaut Norishige Kanai. Courtesy of NASA

Astronaut Scott Tingle Courtesy of Robert Markowitz/NASA
From the outset, it was clear that this wasn't your typical interview. Kanai's hair stood straight up, and the two astronauts passed off the microphone by letting it float between one another. Tingle got to show off his physical strength by doing a push-up with only one finger, but the act sent him careening towards the ceiling.

Kanai told students that being able to fly is a useful trait to have, but it can also betray you.

"As you can see, we can fly like superheroes - that's very convenient and it's very easy," he said. "But sometimes we lose balance and we have to stabilize ourselves holding something, so it's not so cool, and it's not easy."

Sure there are important experiments going on aboard the space station, but how do you know when it's time to go to sleep, asked Nate, a first-grader. Kanai said he and the rest of the crew keep a close watch on a clock - set to Greenwich Mean Time - in order to follow a consistent schedule, but circadian rhythms serve as an innate clock that helps astronauts know when it's time to turn in for the day.

And what's it like to eat and drink in a zero-gravity environment, asked fifth-grade student Taili. Students got a kick out of the answer when Tingle pulled out a plastic package and squeezed out a dark, undulating blob of fluid, which floated a few inches in front of his face before he snatched it up with his mouth. He said surface tension helps keep the fluid together in space, but you still have to be careful not to make a mess.

Tingle and Kanai kept up with the questions - with a slight delay as the video feed reached low Earth orbit - answering everything from whether astronauts can grow food in space to whether it's possible to see the Earth spinning from the International Space Station.

Kanai said the station is whizzing around the planet at a rate of about 90 minutes per revolution, which is too fast for them to see the Earth spinning with the naked eye. But the denizens of the space station can observe that the Earth is spinning based on which portions of the planet are lit by the sun.

"Let's say we fly over California during the daytime, and the next time we fly over California it may be nighttime," he said. "Then we can know, 'Ah, Earth is definitely spinning.'"

Heading the effort to bring the Q&A to Monta Loma was fourth-grade teacher Sean Dechter, who was able to get a leg up on the application process through a parent at the school who works for NASA. He said he couldn't have asked for a better event, which had no technical glitches and a polite and cooperative crowd of students. He said he hopes it inspired students to either become astronauts or consider careers in science and engineering fields.

"I think the general idea of students talking to astronauts while they're in space is pretty amazing," he said.

While the presentation was out of this world, NASA Ames Director Eugene Tu told Monta Loma students that research and experiments for space flight happen virtually next door at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. He encouraged the kids to nag their parents and teachers for a field trip to come by and visit so they can see firsthand the science research that goes into planning space missions.

The event was well-attended by local elected officials, including City Council and school board members as well as Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, who described the International Space Station as an important success story where nations all over the world work together toward a common goal. She said the diverse group of students at Monta Loma represent their own version of the International Space Station right at home.

Monta Loma Principal Gloria Higgins said Eshoo's comments really hit home. The school not only touts ethnic and economic diversity among families, but also career backgrounds, with a large contingent of families from high-tech companies and members of the military in the school's community.

"We have families from all over the world, and the International Space Station is just a symbol of that," she said. "And I know we had some teachers who got a little teary eyed when they heard that."


3 people like this
Posted by Steven Nelson
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 7, 2018 at 7:35 am

Thanks reporter Kevin, for a good-news story about the initiative of a MVWSD teaching staff. I hope readers note, this is at a school that anonymous commenters continue to misunderstand and misrepresent. It is a local elementary that former Trustee Lambert, even as a former parent, continued to support with his volunteer effort, time, and comments.

The Monta Loma multi-purpose room, built with Whisman School District bonds, has been one of the largest in MVWSD's set of elementary MURs. The facilities plans of the last several years - and the last MVWSD bonds - have started the building of new and similar Right-Sized MURs at Bubb, Huff and Landels. The two new campuses (TH & @SL) and an enlarged TH MUR will be easily able to accommodate a large fraction (1/3?) of the students in a school at one time. I think the Superintendent and CBO have done a good job at listening closely, to the priorities of the community, as expressed by community-involved district committees and the direction of elected boards.

But in the end, it is the drive of the education staff, the teachers, that make these programs Happen! How many STEM programs are being funded by LCFF (LCAP) so economically disadvantaged kids, with no parent-transportation can visit NASA? With the DO 'enable' this at the two Title 1 schools (CA, TH)?

18 people like this
Posted by Jennifer Coogan
a resident of Monta Loma
on Mar 7, 2018 at 11:44 am

This was a thrilling event for our school, and a great use of our new multipurpose room. If you got to see the event in-person, or televised, you'd notice that as each student got up to ask the astronauts a question, all the other students applauded and cheered for the question-asker. The staff and school leadership have done a lot to make ML an inclusive, supportive community, so it's especially important that there's space for them to celebrate that community and learn together as a big group. I'd be willing to bet $100 that at least one or two ML Leopards will go to space someday, based on how inspiring that morning was.

29 people like this
Posted by Just me
a resident of Cuernavaca
on Mar 7, 2018 at 4:40 pm

It must be nice to have a principal. Monte Loma’s test scores are low for the Hispanic students and have not been rising but this principal still have a job. It must be her status as a former board member and support from current board member Wheeler.

4 people like this
Posted by Steven Nelson
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 8, 2018 at 9:57 am

The whole district continues to have an Hispanic achievement GAP. Not just Higgins responsibility. And I hope that former Board member/ Principal Higgins is not getting any special political favors (from the Administration) via her friend Wheeler or ... (check the past political endorsements of candidates during board elections for other Higgins endorsements.)

The Soviet Union had a great space program, the Chinese communist party's new Lifetime Great Leader also has had space program successes. Success in space is nota measure of other than that.

teachers connected to kids:
But - kids having fun with space studies, is just about as popular a kid topic as "dinosaurs" of any type. It draws them in, it gets them hooked with interest. But STEM education is also measurable by academic proficiency. The Smarter Balance test, of the Common Core Curriculum is 21st century. It requires an understanding - and a deepness of understanding enough for kids to start to draw conclusions from inference, deduction and incomplete (or hidden) information in Math. (the M of STEM)

Gloria Higgins deserves to be judged on her ability to close the academic achievement gap - one of her principal jobs as principal - by the results of her school's academics going forward (she has not been at the school for long). She should have her academic administrative leadership proficiency judged by a standardized, well vetted, nation-wide test. Let's also see how her 'academic leadership' shows up on the new NGSS test (and not on if the Congresswoman or Mayor shows up to her school).

I'm glad the ML community got the good publicity it deserves. It has had one of the very best 'parents actually involved' School Site Councils in the entire district, under the former principal.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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