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August 6, 2012

In the Loop: Pennsylvania Students Take a ‘Virtual Field Trip’ to the RBSP Clean Room

Pennsylvania Students Take a ‘Virtual Field Trip’ to the RBSP Clean Room

When Radiation Storm Belt Probes technician Alan Busbey was asked to speak to his son’s fifth-grade class about his work this May, he had to get creative. The school is located in Hanover, Pa., but Busbey had just relocated 900 miles away to Titusville, Fla. for the final stages of integration and testing on the twin RBSP spacecraft before their Aug. 23 launch.

The answer turned out to be as close as his tablet computer (an iPad), with help from familiar web-based communication tool Skype.

On May 24, Busbey hosted a “virtual field trip” and spoke with the class via Skype from RBSP’s clean room — an environment free from dust and other contaminants —in the Astrotech Space Operations facility near Kennedy Space Center. 

“We were beginning to talk about the exploration of space and I knew that Alan worked with equipment that was sent into space,” says Jody Groft, the class’ teacher. “I thought he would be a great resource person that my students could learn from.”

With RBSP integration and test engineer Dave Myers holding the iPad, Busbey began his tour in the gowning room, talking as he donned his clean room suit and explaining the room’s features and components. Groft says the students found it funny that the room needed to be sterile, “but Alan clearly explained the importance of the conditions of the room and the outfits the crew was wearing.”

Once inside the actual clean room, Busbey took control of the iPad and explained what the team was working on that day. “I would do a quick synopsis of what they were doing and I explained the things [the kids] were seeing live,” he says. “At the time I was in there, they were preparing for an upcoming spin balance test and you could see it spinning so I showed the kids how the spin table works and why we use it.” [See RBSP spin balance testing here:  http://rbsp.jhuapl.edu/newscenter/newsArticles/20120711.php]

Busbey — who has worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for five years — knew from his son that the class had already learned about protons, neutrons and electrons, and he could draw on that information to explain RBSP’s mission. “I was able to explain to them, ‘You learned about this stuff earlier in the year, and you never thought you would ever use it when you get older, but here it is,’” he says. “We’re using what you learn as a kid.”

After hearing about the mission and the clean room, Groft asked the students if they had questions for Busbey – and did they ever:  Why there are two spacecraft? How long does it take to build them, and how many people work on them? How do they stay in orbit? What would happen to them once the mission was over? How would the team retrieve their data from space?
“They just bombarded me with questions,” he says. “It was great. And they asked good questions too.”

The kids also asked about Busbey’s education, and what was required to work on a spacecraft. “You’re limitless,” he told them. “You could be a technician like myself and just have an associate’s degree, or you can get a Ph.D. and be a scientist. The sky’s the limit.”

Busbey admits to being a bit nervous about speaking to a group, but he enjoyed the experience. “It’s not something I can see myself doing all the time, but it was rewarding to see how receptive they were and how it all just fell together,” he says.

The Pennsylvania classroom was equipped with a projector and large screen for all the students to have a good view. Groft had previously used Skype with her class for a book reading with another fifth grade class, “but this was our very first Skype ‘field trip,’” she says.

“Anything that brings ‘book learning’ to reality is awesome,” Groft says, describing the students’ awe at seeing the twin spacecraft. “It captures the student’s attention and makes them really think about the curriculum that is taught. They can experience the lesson up close and personal. The ability to ask questions and get the answers firsthand is a truly rewarding experience.”

The Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program, which is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., manages the mission and is building and will operate the RBSP spacecraft for NASA.

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