Teacher to do research with NASA

Published 11:19 pm Saturday, April 21, 2012

Conventional wisdom holds that climate change and politics should be as absent from the classroom as from polite dinner conversation, but a North Suffolk educator is skirting the controversy and using both to teach important lessons.

Liz Petry, a K-5 gifted resource teacher at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School, covers more than just the wind and the rain in her lessons on the weather.

“As a gifted resource teacher, I try to extend … (and focus on) how weather patterns change over time,” she said.

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“We’ve looked at how fossils show how the climate changes over huge time periods, and obviously how climate change has occurred over millions of years.”

The NASA Explorer School has just received weather-monitoring equipment to gather climatic data for the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program — otherwise known as GLOBE.

The primary and secondary school-based program, a partnership with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation, encourages collaboration between students, teachers and scientists on environmental research.

And just as Petry focuses on the science of global warming and not the raging public debate behind it, when election time rolls around she gives her students lessons on the political process, taking pains to keep party-politics out of the equation.

Students are taught how politics works with practical exercises. They devise policies and “run for office,” Petry said.

Sometimes these lessons walk a fine line. “They hear things in the news,” she said. “They’re getting bits and pieces (of political ideologies and controversies), but we try to stay below the political arena.”

She agreed that students whose parents care little for politics would otherwise graduate into the real world with even less idea about how democracy works.

“I find in elementary school you can focus on the fundamentals,” she said.

Meanwhile, Petry is one of 14 teachers nationwide attending a weeklong NASA program at Dryden Flight Center in Edwards, Calif. at the end of June.

The Airborne Research Experience will take them aboard a DC-8 with NASA scientists to gather climatic data, and earthquake-related data will be gathered back on the ground.

The team will then help scientists analyze and report the data, Petry said, and back in the classroom later, her students will gather data of their own.

“Each of these training experiences is to provide us with ideas to come back and do activities with students,” Petry said.