Volume 19 Issue 37 | January 26 - February 1, 2007

A class where you can throw paper airplanes

Jenny Kwong, 14, center, and her Shuang Wen Academy classmate, Shan Win, 14, demonstrate a wind tunnel test station to Councilmember Alan Gerson last week at NASA’s space center at Corlears Junior High.

(Photo by William Alatriste/New York City Council)

By Brooke Edwards

It looks nothing like your ordinary classroom.

Stars hang from the ceiling of room 100 at Corlears Junior High in Chinatown. There is a giant flight simulator projected onto a three-foot half-dome in the corner. The room — decorated in futuristic black, silver and gray — is filled with 13 computer stations surrounded by model airplanes and space shuttles, remote-control robots and satellite photographs of the earth.

Downtown Express photo by Brooke Edwards
Two enthralled fifth graders from P.S. 110 at the NASA center’s flight simulator.
At the front of the room is Jenny Ingber, science teacher and coordinator of the laboratory. She wears a long white lab coat over her fuzzy sweater — a contrast that matches her professional but warm personality.

In a rare moment for a room full of 27 fifth-graders, every head is facing forward, every squirming body still and every voice hushed as they watch Ingber demonstrate thrust by letting the air out of a balloon.

Minutes later, students are laughing and talking loudly as paper airplanes sail across the room and 10-year-olds discuss which wing shape will give their planes the least drag.

Nicole Murray, who came to help chaperone her daughter’s class, takes it all in with a smile. She says that her daughter Mecca, 10, has been looking forward to the fieldtrip all week.

“She was excited to come and try the plane simulator,” Murray says. She anticipates that after today, Mecca will want to be a pilot.

This unique lesson in aeronautics took place last Tuesday, as Katherine Doctor’s fifth-grade science class from P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side took a fieldtrip to the Region 9 Space Center, housed in Corlears on Henry St.

The Space Center is part of an educational outreach program started by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. There are currently 37 NASA space centers across the U.S., though most are housed in colleges. This is the first space center in an N.Y.C. public school.

The Space Center is open to all schools in the area during or after the regular school day and offers curricula for fourth through 12th-grade science and mathematics classes. Eventually, the center hopes to also host community family nights, clubs, summer programs and competitions.

In addition to the lesson on aeronautics presented to Doctor’s class, the lab offers a session on microgravity, teaching students what it is like to live and work in space.

And the Aeronautics Laboratory in room 100 is only the first of three phases that will eventually be a part of the Space Center. Construction is just beginning on the Challenger Center next door, where students will be able to simulate trips to the moon, and a space station nodule replica across the hall.

Activity at the center has been a little slow, with just over 20 classes from Chinatown and the Lower East Side visiting since its opening in September. But those involved expect there will one day be a waiting list to bring students to the center.

Dr. Frank Scalzo, a NASA education program specialist, brought the idea of a space center to the City Council three years ago.

Although NASA cannot support the Space Center financially since its current educational funding has been depleted, Scalzo said, “We’ll support the lab on our end with technology and learning and competitions.”

The official ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony for the Space Center was held Thursday morning, Jan. 18. More than 70 people attended the ceremony, including the 20 students selected to welcome visitors and demonstrate the lab, and City Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Alan Gerson.

The $750,000 Space Center is the pet project of Gerson. At the ceremony, Gerson reluctantly paused his turn on the flight simulator in order to speak.

“I’ve decided that I need to re-enroll in middle school,” Gerson said, clearly enjoying his time behind the joystick.

That is the idea behind the new facility. Gerson said, “This aerospace lab says learning can be fun and educational at the same time.”

Corlears was a failing school three years ago. It was closed last June and reopened in July with three separate programs inside, though it still struggles as a low-performing school. Gerson said Corlears was chosen as the home for the Space Center to show that the city is dedicated to improving local schools.

“This lab shows our community that we are committed to a thorough and outstanding science education for our children,” he said. “220 Henry St. will be known as the center for science education and innovation.”

The students, all following Ingber’s lead with white lab coats, had nothing but positive things to say about the Space Center.

Emmy Kuo, 13, is an eighth-grader at Shuang Wen School, a Chinese-English public school on the Lower East Side. She said, “Before I came, I didn’t even know what a wind tunnel was.” But during the event, Kuo was articulate ly explaining to visitors how the wind tunnel works.

Another student from Shuang Wen — Jia Fei Shi, 13 — now wants to be a pilot. He said that he learns a great deal each time he comes to the lab. He demonstrated the flight planning station and said that there, “I learn how the wing affects how the plane will fly.”

Marc Adorno, a 17-year-old senior at NEST, said he hopes to work for NASA. Gerson said he is confident that students like Adorno will make it that far. He told them, “What we are saying with this laboratory is that you have the opportunity to grow up to be the future engineers and aeronautics designers and astronauts.”

Gerson also asked the smiling students to please “save me a seat on your first trip to the moon.”

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