Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=99457
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 12:15:05 PM CST
WASHINGTON -- About 240 miles above the Earth, onboard the International Space Station, astronaut Greg Chamitoff is playing on a homemade Velcro chess board in his latest match. He made his first move Sunday night and waited while his opponents on Earth deliberated their choices.
Who are these opponents? A group of students at Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue, Wash.
They are the National Elementary Chess Champions, crowned last May in Pittsburgh. Most of the 11 kids are in the third grade or younger.
“It is just really cool to be involved with something like this,” said David Hendricks, one of the coaches of the championship team.
It is an opportunity for the students not only to play chess but also to have more exposure to science at an early age, a step that has been shown to make it more likely for students to make it a career.
Robert Tai, an associate professor of science education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, is one of the authors of the study examining the link between early exposure to science and career choices.
The information was collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics, which tracked a group of students through high school from 1988 through 2000. Tai matched answers involving their career interests early in the study to what they actually chose to study in college.
“To make the kind of commitment long term that results in a tangible outcome like earning your baccalaureate degree in that [science] major, there is no fooling around,” Tai said. “You had to take a lot of classes; you had to go to college. There is a lot that they had to do to get to that outcome.”
The results of Tai’s study were published in Science magazine in 2006, but his work continues to influence the way he shows future teachers how to teach science.
Tai stays away from terminology and discourages taking notes. Instead he focuses on experiments and the experiential factors of learning.
First hand experiences, like the Earth-to-space chess match, “are going to generate excitement,” Tai said, and when undertaken at an early age can grow into something more expansive.
“It has the opportunity to develop from this passing thought of ‘Oh, that’s kind of a neat rock,’ to a deeper kind of interest: ‘I want to find out about things’,” Tai said.
Tai said he thinks that the current push towards testing for standard knowledge has dulled the sense of wonder.
“We spend a lot of time making sure that no one is confused. Actually being confused is not a horrible thing. it just means you don’t know something.”
Working on the “edge of human knowledge,” an area with a lot of complexity, keeps many scientists motivated, Tai said.
Tai’s teaching recommendations were echoed by Doug Baldwin, the director of education at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
“The chess match in space will be a wonderful opportunity for the kids participating,” Baldwin said.
“For young ages, science and math need to be interactive and fun,” said he added. “Show kids at an early age that science and math could be used to solve problems -- a little less theoretical, more hands-on.”
Baldwin said NASA has done a great job of getting involved with museums and teachers to help spread “the coolness factor to kids.”
And what could be cooler for a young child than choosing chess moves which are transmitted to an astronaut orbiting the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour?
Try meeting the astronaut live via satellite. The chess club is scheduled to link up with Chamitoff on Oct. 9, and will have a chance to ask him questions about chess, science and space travel.
Chamitoff, a 46-year-old native of Montreal, is unlikely to give away his strategy for the match during the meeting. But based on the relative chess ratings of the astronaut and the children playing, Hendricks has confidence in his students. The kids can get help picking Earth’s move in the game through voting on the Internet.
“I think we have a reasonably good chance to win this game,” he said.