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Inquiring minds at Gulf Middle School: Eighth graders seek answers to the universe and beyond

By Staff | Mar 8, 2018

Since the beginnings of mankind we have gazed up at the stars in awe. The human need to understand, to explore, and find our place within the vast reaches of the universe is part of who we are.

We are explorers. Our curiosity is an ingrained part of the human spirit. And the students of Kristy Lavis, senior science teacher at Gulf Middle School, along with a few retired scientists, are evidence that our wonder of space has in no way diminished.

Members of the Scientists Society of Southwest Florida recently met with 52 of Lavis’ eight-graders to field questions about space science. The students presented the scientist with wide-ranging and deeply curious questions regarding space and the universe.

The Scientists Society of Southwest Florida is an organization of men and women from all scientific fields. From its website, the Society supports the education of students preparing for a career in the sciences. The Society also provides a pool of experts who serve as judges for school science fairs.

When Lavis invited members of the Society to answer questions from her Advance Science students, Science Fair Coordinator John Tallman was immediately on board.

“Members of the society have always made themselves available to mentor students while they are considering science fair or invention projects. Members have given their time to judge school-based science and invention fair projects and provide feedback to students about their projects,” Lavis said.

Like the ever-expanding universe, the students’ interest is piqued by their growing curiosity of space science.

“Students want to understand the vastness of our universe, other stars’ relationship to Earth, and what will happen to our sun,” Lavis said.

Questions regarding topics such as how was the Moon formed, the possibility of colonizing Mars, what’s outside of the universe, how does the Hubble Telescope see, and the existence of dark matter.

Leading the discussion, Retired Colonel James L. Passauer began by introducing himself to the students and the impact science had upon his career in the United States Air Force. “I was one of the only scientists selected as a candidate for the astronaut program.”

Members of the Society, such as Passauer, offer real-life scientific experience.

“When I applied for the Scientist as Astronaut Program I was planning to establish a First Order surveying baseline on the Moon in order to provide accurate measurements. I was the only candidate submitted from the Strategic Air Command, the SAC,” Passauer said.

For the eighth graders the Cold War being the stuff of history texts, Passauer went on to explain his role at SAC.

“I was in charge of 160 ICBM’s, or Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, designed for retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. From this work we designed what is now Global Satellite Positioning. For those of you used GPS, which it seems that we all do, I developed it.”

Passauer, a past president of the Society, spoke of the importance of scientific inquiry.

“Many people will give an answer, but as scientists, if we don’t know something, we’ll tell you we don’t know. We won’t make up an answer. But we will investigate, and get back to the person who asked the question and relate our findings. That’s what we as scientists do,” Passauer said.

As a scientist, Passauer impressed upon the students the importance of continued learning, and continued scientific discussion.

“Science is advancing year after year. New discoveries. New technologies. We think we’re young. We’re only in our 70s. We enjoy giving back anyway we can,” Passauer said.

Joining Passauer in the discussion was the current Director of the Society, Charles F. Fuechsel.

Fuechsel spent 37 years with NASA and was part of the Hubble Telescope Program.

“After all these years I continue to marvel at space,” Fuechsel said.

Fielding questions from the students about the discovery of planets outside of our solar system, Fuechsel, had this to say: “Scientist refer to planets that orbit stars beyond our solar system as exoplanets. So far, we’ve found over 200,000 exoplanets. The Hubble Telescope has been invaluable to scientist in this regard.”

Fuechsel explained the Doppler Effect, and how scientists use waves to understand objects in space moving toward or away from each other.

“The Hubble Telescope does not see light as you and I do. Nor does Hubble use lenses. Instead, Hubble uses special mirrors that are carved either in a convex or concave manor to read a broad range of radiation, or wavelengths, we cannot see with our eyes. This is how scientist use Hubble to discover new planets,” Fuechsel said.

Fuechsel spoke about the missing mass hypothesis in regards to dark matter.

“This is a big question in physics, why some celestial bodies do not behave the way we expect them to. If you go on to become an astrophysicist, that’s a good problem to solve.”

Recalling his days at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington D.C., “I’ve hung out with astrophysicists so long I began to think like one,” Fuechsel said.

Another student asked if we have ever left our solar system.

Fuechsel responded with a resounding yes.

“In 1973, we sent the Voyager Space Probe onto the grand tour of space. It was the first to escape our solar system. Voyager is now free of our sun’s gravity and headed out into the universe.”

For the eighth graders, coming to terms with the vastness of the universe is a mindboggling topic.

“The size of the universe is hard for us to wrap our heads around. It’s so big it’s incomprehensible,” Lavis said.

Fuechsel concurred.

“Voyager extracted energy from each planet it made a visit to in our solar system. It is now traveling at approximately 11 miles per second. Even at this great speed, it will take Voyager 40,000 years before it reaches the closest exoplanet.”

Space travel is definitely on the students’ minds. Names such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos come up in discussion. Musk, of PayPal and Tesla, has sent 50 payloads into space, including missions to the International Space Station, using his SpaceX rockets. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is still in the test phase, however, his Blue Origin has developed the first-ever reusable rocket capable of a vertical landing.

“Bezos would like to dabble in space travel. He’s partnered with all the heavy hitters in the aerospace industry to develop a new launch vehicle to travel in space,” Fuechsel said.

“Bezos is developing to the end, searching for the perfect vehicle, while Musk is doing it now, sending trips to the ISS,” Passauer noted.

Both scientists agreed, however, that long-voyage space travel is still out human reach.

“Our lives are too short to visit exoplanets,” Passauer said.

“If we want to go to anther star we need a whole new way of getting around town,” Fuechsel said.

The universe is more immense than most of us can imagine and continuing to expand, like a balloon that has no limits. Nevertheless, Fuechsel’s words offered a ray of hope for many students, as their faces lit up to the possibility of space travel.

Student Gaelle Luc plans to become an animator, however, she was thoroughly engaged in the discussion.

“I’ve always found space fascinating. I’m really interested in the universe. I want to know what the universe is made of and how is it always expanding?” Luc said.

In regards to establishing a colony on another planet, Passauer had this to say: “I have always been optimistic about Outer Space and Space Exploration. I believe we should plan a permanent Colony on the Moon before we try to establish one on Mars. The Moon would provide experience that the ISS does not in planning for a successful mission to Mars. It is important to learn as much as we can about our solar system and the universe so we don’t do foolish things. There may be water on Mars but there is no food and growing food takes time and energy. The available solar energy on Mars is approximately one fourth of that available on Earth. I built a solar powered house in Omaha NE in 1971. Low gravity and low atmospheric experiments have already proven that some new processes may be more economically undertaken in space or on the lunar surface.”

Lavis’ students have a beyond-their-years grasp that for humanity to thrive at some point we may need to become interplanetary. After all, at this point we only have one planet to call home, and so far, we have not been the best stewards of our Earth.

“There are a lot of things we do not know about space. But learning about it is important because if we keep exploring space our species can survive,” eighth-grader Cooper Bisbe said.

Be that as it may, Bisbe has reservations about venturing to another planet.

“I’m very interested in space travel but I wouldn’t want to do it,” he said.

“The problem with Mars is that it’s too small to hold onto an atmosphere. Pressure from solar wind, a steady stream of particles from the sun, will do havoc on a colony. We see these particles from the solar wind here on Earth in the form of what’s called the Aura Borealis, also referred to the Northern Lights. The Earth, in comparison to Mars, has a hefty magnetic field. Our mass plus our magnetic field enables us to hold onto our water and atmosphere. For us to colonize Mars, we’ll have to work around this. Perhaps build underground,” Fauchsel said.

“Are there other perfect planets out there that people could live on?” a student asked.

“Earth has had microbes for nearly two billion years that make the oxygen we enjoy. That puts us in the Goldilocks zone: a planet with liquid water and an atmosphere. It takes a lot of stuff to support life,” Fuechsel said.

Students were intrigued with the notion of the ever-expanding universe.

“Is there any way to get outside of the universe?” an eight-grader asked.

“We’re inside the universe and this is all we can see. An interesting term, the universe, but when we refer to the universe, we’re really talking about the perceivable universe, meaning the part of space that is inside this balloon. What’s beyond that, we can only guess. The stuff outside of it we may never know about,” Fauchsel said.

“What we do know, because of scientists, and Hubble, and years of investigation, is that the universe is made out of the same stuff Earth is, and in retrospect, this is not surprising,” Fauchsel said.

But why study space? Why should space matter to these eight-graders?

According to the NASA website, scientist are responsible for new discoveries in medicine and technology that is undoubtedly improving human life. Science, particularly space science, represents an investment in our future.

Space scientists, such as those working at NASA, for example, are developing more highly dexterous robots to perform work in dangerous conditions, revolutionary all-in-one gear and bearing motors, and even working with algae photobioractors that combine wastewater while producing bio fuels. And these are only a sampling of recent advances that come from the space sciences.

Lavis had this to say about space science: “I hope to encourage students to consider math and science careers and to consider what type of jobs will be available when they are choosing a college degree. Those with science and math jobs are going to be golden. I can’t impress upon these kids enough that science and math are the future.”

“There is plenty of worthy stuff out there for you to study when you earn your science degree,” Fuechsel said.

“We don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why we’re scientist. To find out,” Passauer said.

Why do we study space? Why do we desire to learn more? “Because it’s there. It’s next,” Tallman said.