By Sarah Wright
LEGO in Zero Gravity
LEGO. Colorful bricks that mean hours of creative fun for kids and their parents. The bricks were specifically designed to be easy-to-use for even the youngest kids, and putting them together is usually the least challenging part of any LEGO project. But what about trying to build something while the pieces are floating around your head?
This is a challenge that will be faced by Cady Coleman, a NASA astronaut who will wrangle with the colored blocks aboard the International Space Station (ISS) later this year. Well, it's not exactly true that she'll be plucking the bricks out of the air as they're suspended in the gravity-free atmosphere of space. She'll actually build the kits in a specially constructed box that will allow her to manipulate the LEGO pieces with gloves. But still, it's a pretty cool concept, and this will be the first time anyone has attempted to build LEGO in space.
Yeah, it's cool, but what's the point? The out-of-this world play session is the result of a partnership between NASA and LEGO, and the goal is to use these ubiquitous playthings as part of several lessons that will take place on the ISS. These lessons will be recorded for teachers to use as part of their lesson plans. Though the target age group of these lessons is at the lower-middle range of the K-12 spectrum, the inclusion of a toy as enduring and nostalgic as LEGO is likely to mean that older learners will want to tune in to these lessons as well.
NASA has been including education along with its other missions throughout its history. Though the specific educational goal may have changed and shifted over time, the current goal is to inspire interest in science, math, engineering and technology fields - often called STEM among education insiders. Because LEGO building requires the use of imagination in conjunction with engineering and technology exercises (and maybe a little math and science, for super ambitious kids), incorporating it into lessons is a great way for NASA to reach their audience in a relatable, fun and familiar way.
On May 16, 2011, the space shuttle Endeavour (so spelled because it's named after a British ship) launched with LEGO bricks among its payload. This flight will be the last for Endeavour, and one of the final space missions for any U.S. space shuttle. The LEGO sets' inclusion in this mission is arguably less important than some of the other items included, such as worm specimens brought into orbit for research purposes. However, LEGO's enduring, and endearing, status as a multi-generational plaything is likely to draw more attention to this aspect of the mission than any other.
If you want to incorporate more fun into your learning, why not read about some fictional schools?