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News - July 21, 2017

Space science soars at Mountain View High

Teachers fit high-powered rockets, satellites and radio telescopes into the classroom

by Kevin Forestieri

After students cleared out of Mountain View High School for summer break, physics teacher Steve Widmark rolled up his sleeves and got to work building a giant radio telescope on the roof of his classroom. The 3-meter dish, which sits on top of room 616, is expected to be fully functional by the time the school year starts — provided he can soldier his way through poorly translated directions on how to assemble it.

The dish is just one part of a space science and astronomy curriculum that has grown at Mountain View High in recent years. Rather than launch a stand-alone astronomy course, teachers are wrapping ambitious projects — including rocketry, atmospheric balloons, radio astronomy and even earth-orbiting satellites — into existing science classes.

The science department is also preparing for the upcoming solar eclipse on Aug. 21 with a campus-wide presentation, giving all classes a chance to peer into the history and the science behind the astronomical phenomenon.

The school is home to four space-centric science projects, the planning of which began in the last two years. Then, starting in spring 2016, students began launching what are called "Stratolab" experiments, where a meteorological balloon is floated more than 90,000 feet into the atmosphere with a GoPro camera and an experiment on board. Biology students in that first year put a payload on the Stratolab — in this case plants — to see how they would react to the pressure, temperature and ultraviolet intensity high up in the atmosphere, said Sarah Hawthorne, the high school's science department chair.

"We learned a lot from that first experiment; it was a success overall," Hawthorne said. "The temperature froze all the plants, but they were freeze-dried and had a color and structure you wouldn't expect if they wilted down here on Earth."

During the 2016-17 school year, Widmark kicked off a second science project in which students conduct experiments aboard a high-powered rocket that can pull off a brief period of zero-gravity about 2,500 feet in the air. Two electric engines mounted on the rocket can allow it to "coast" after its motor burns out, giving students 10 valuable seconds of a zero-gravity environment that they can use to see how, for example, solder would flow without the pull of gravity.

Widmark said science classes at the high school have small astronomy components, but there's really no formal space course available to students. Rather than wait for one to be added to the school's course catalog, he began finding ways to collaborate with teachers and inject these experiments into existing classes. But doing so is easier said than done, particularly when teachers have a tight timeline to teach advanced placement classes with little time to spare before the test in spring.

"You've got this merciless timeline to deal with," Widmark said. "My goal is to make it as attractive and painless as possible."

The latest addition to the space science program is the radio satellite, which was hauled up onto the roof by crane earlier this summer. Widmark said the parts were purchased from Sweden with assembly required, and the directions are not translated very well — leaving him plenty of work to do between now and the start of school. The satellite can be used to detect things like movement of hydrogen in the galaxy, giving students the ability to collect data that shows which direction large clouds of hydrogen are moving and at what speed.

Preparing for the eclipse

Over the summer, Widmark and Hawthorne have been building a curriculum for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, when the moon will line up in front of the sun and partially blot out sunlight over the Bay Area. The region is within the "partial eclipse zone," and the maximum eclipse point will be around 10:15 a.m., when the sun will be 76 percent covered.

Hawthorne said she wants every teacher to have access to resources and PowerPoint presentations on the eclipse so no student has to miss out on observing and learning about the astronomical event. She said a survey to third-period teachers showed huge interest in teaching about the eclipse across all subjects, including English, French and history classes.

Students will learn not only the science behind an eclipse, but also the history of the phenomenon and the way it's seen from various cultures around the word.

A solar telescope will be available on campus for students to observe the eclipse, and the Mountain View-Los Altos High School Foundation is committed to buying safe eclipse-viewing glasses for every student in the district, Hawthorne said. The foundation is also responsible for funding the Stratolab project and the rocket projects that Widmark helped launch in recent years.

Hawthorne said teachers often struggle to be able to give up class time — particularly advanced-placement teachers with a regimented schedule — which meant she was all the more thrilled to see so many teachers on board to teach about the eclipse.

"I was pretty excited that they were willing to dedicate 15 minutes, or even 50 minutes," she said. "It's such a rare event (to have here), that people are very interested."

Email Kevin Forestieri at kforestieri@mv-voice.com

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