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MC Professor Merges The Chemistry Of Spaceflight With The National Air And Space Museum

Editor’s note: This story is part of our MC faculty series, in which professors discuss relevant topics within their areas of expertise. Dr. Virginia Miller is a professor of chemistry at Montgomery College

By Virginia Miller

This summer marked the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission, and few topics spark as much universal excitement as space travel.

In an effort to capture this enthusiasm and bring it to the classroom, I completely redesigned the CHEM 131 (Principles of Chemistry I) course so that students can explore basic chemical concepts within the dynamic context of spaceflight applications. My goal with this themed variation of general chemistry is to encourage the next generation of scientists and innovators to apply the lessons of the past to the challenges of tomorrow.

Students visit both National Air and Space Museums

To incorporate this theme, I use a collection of in-class activities and at-home projects linking the standard course topics with chemical applications pertinent to manned spaceflight (both past and present). For example, students explore the chemical reactions involved in rockets, CO2 scrubbers, and fuel cells in conjunction with the concept of stoichiometry. [Stoichiometry is the calculation of reactants and products in chemical reactions.] They learn about the design and purpose of a spacecraft’s heat shield while studying the principles of energy transfer and temperature changes. I also use short videos, articles, and images from the Smithsonian’s digital collection to enhance our classroom discussions. These activities are a fun and engaging way for students to make connections to real-world science.

The capstone events of this course are field trips to both National Air and Space Museums. At the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, students meet with Smithsonian curators and learn more about the chemistry of specific artifacts (https://youtu.be/85gyS1cuesE). Dr. Valerie Neal always gives us a captivating tour of the space shuttle Discovery and discusses the chemistry involved in the shuttle’s engines and reusable thermal tiles. She also brings samples of the thermal tiles for students to hold and feel (I wonder how often this happens in a chemistry course!). Dr. Cathleen Lewis speaks about the evolution of spacesuit design and the various materials used in the construction of the lunar spacesuits. Learning from these museum experts is an incredibly enriching and stimulating experience. One student said that it “made [him] feel like a scholar rather than a student.”

Students visit both National Air and Space Museums

At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., students embark on a detailed scavenger hunt through the Space Race, Moving Beyond Earth, and Apollo to the Moon exhibits, where they analyze the different types of spacecraft and spacesuits. This sparks their curiosity and gives them the opportunity to see, in person, many of the technologies discussed in class.

“The best part of the visit was that I was able to experience the scale and magnitude of the objects. The only time I would ever see them would be in pictures and I could only imagine what they would look like in real life,” said Raka Adam, one of the students. “Since I was able to actually see the objects closely, I have a newfound appreciation towards the advancement in technology that humanity has come to.”

The best part of the visit was that I was able to experience the scale and magnitude of the objects

After reflecting on these museum visits, my students find that they have a greater understanding and appreciation for the role of chemistry in the real world. One of them is Aaron Mpungwe: “This experience made me realize that even the basic chemistry we learn can be very significant in real life. For example, the basic reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to make water can produce enough energy to propel a rocket to space!”

Many of them come away inspired and amazed by what they discovered and learned. I hope that this course, along with the unique opportunities it provides, enhances the learning experience and encourages students to think beyond the classroom.

“This experience was better than a traditional classroom setting because we were more engaged and excited to learn,” said Maria Ale, another student. “I also feel that actually going to the museums supported and enriched my knowledge.”

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