Adventures in Outer Space – A High School S.T.E.M. Laboratory Textbook
by Joe Maness and Richard Kerry Holtzin, Ph.D.
paperback, 188 pp., illus.
Many people complain about the supposed sorry state of education in the US, but few actually go about trying to do something worthwhile about it. Engaging young minds, especially at the high school level, is at best a challenging endeavor. Enter S.T.E.M. For the Classroom and their newest textbook, Adventures in Outer Space. It truly is a space nerd’s dream.
Most educators claim that using real-world examples help students to develop a deeper understanding of virtually any subject, and the authors follow this sage advice. Students not only learn the wonderful world of mathematics through the lens of real aerospace companies but also gain many valuable real-world skills, such as website administration and mobile app development. There are even many cross-curricular activities that force students to think beyond S.T.E.M., such as writing, discussion, and drawing exercises.
Chapters 1 through 4 covers the fall semester, and Chapter 5 through 8 covers the spring semester. At the end of each semester, students must present their findings to the rest of the class, ideally in front of their parents and the press.
The best part about this textbook is that students not only get to learn some valuable skills, they also use their imaginations as they soar ever higher on the wings of mathematics, from a short hop into space all the way to the surface of the Moon. I believe that this idea alone would lead to at least a tiny increase in student interest and test scores.
Students begin their adventures in outer space by taking a suborbital spaceflight. Chapter 1 uses the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo as an example of using quadratic equations. Students determine maximum height, time in space, and time spent weightless, among other calculations. They are assigned different initial flight scenarios, with some missions flying higher than others. Discussions as to why this is so are bound to ensue.
The next step in their adventure is an Earth orbital flight. Chapter 2 focuses on the Reaction Engines, Ltd. Skylon spaceliner to illustrate polynomial equations. Students are given different payload requirements and have to determine the altitude the spaceliner can achieve, and vice versa. Some missions fly higher than other and, again, a discussion as to why this is so is had by all.
Now that the students are firmly established in space, they have to have a place to go. Chapter 3 has the students design a space station using the Bigelow Aerospace B330 space station module. Matrices guide students in their very own design. When comparing their designs to the International Space Station (ISS), yet another discussion will be facilitated as to why their design is superior in crew capacity and cost.
After all of this space traveling, it is now time to go home, which in this case is Spaceport America in New Mexico. Chapter 4 utilizes trigonometry in the unpowered glide back to the spaceport. Students calculate various aspects of the landing profile, such as glide angle and time until touchdown. Students will not be able to help themselves discussing why some flights need a lower glide angle than others.
The spring semester begins Chapter 5, which explores the change in velocity using square root functions. Students also calculate the time it takes to get to their destination and back, and discuss why the delta v requirements for a trip to the Moon and back are almost the same as a mission to geosynchronous Earth orbit and back.
To reach their destination in outer space, Chapter 6 belongs to the Boeing Space Tug Study Crew Module from 1971. Students use linear equations to customize their spacecraft. They use the mission duration information found in the previous chapter to determine the crew size and the total mass of their temporary home in space.
But the home needs an engine to make it go anywhere interesting. Using the Boeing Space Tug Study Engine Module, Chapter 7 indoctrinates the student into the world of astronautics with the Rocket Equation (exponential equations). Students use the information from Chapter 5 to determine the amount of cargo they can take with them on their mission. Missions can range from a high altitude space station to a nearby comet or asteroid.
In order to make these space lessons as realistic as possible, the question of how to pay for these missions is addressed. Chapter 8 culminates the entire space program with the students designing a real mission to the Moon to collect Moon rocks and bring them back to sell to pay for their lunar mission. Once again, the Boeing Space Tug Study Lunar Lander addresses all of these issues. And with concepts such as return on investment and taxable income, students learn that funding is just as vital to any engineering project as any other component.
For those readers who may believe that this curriculum might be a bit advanced for high school math students, the authors do concede the point. There are topics of learning that may indeed be too much for that level, such as building a website and a mobile app. The authors’ plan is to start at the high school level and see if there is not only an interest but the maturity level needed for such a class. But the authors do acknowledge that this class would make an excellent introduction to Aerospace Engineering to college freshmen.
But no matter who is lucky enough to be on the receiving end of this curriculum, the skills learned in this class are going to be very useful out in the real world. And that’s what education should be all about.
Disclosure: I have known Dr. Holtzin for many decades, and consider him to be a very intelligent and thoughtful fellow. This review, therefore, may be slightly tainted in his favor; my apologies for any non-objective faux pas on my part.