Earlier this summer, a couple hundred teachers got to pretend they were astronauts.
Northglenn High School’s Mike Cengia was among them. Cengia teaches math and engineering at Northglenn High, a school with a robust STEM program. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and it’s become an increasingly important area of study for students as more 21st century jobs demand high-tech skills.
For a week in June, Cengia attended the Honeywell Educators at Space Academy at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. He experienced what it would be like to walk on the moon and worked with other teachers to solve challenges that he can replicate at his school.
We spoke with Cengia about what he learned and what he’ll bring back to his classroom.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you want to go to space camp?
I have a degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State. What brought me to Denver was a job right out of school. I worked for Lockheed Martin for a little over two years, primarily for NASA contracts on (the Mars orbiter) MAVEN. I really enjoyed what I was working on but from the personal fulfillment side of things, I felt like I didn’t completely have that. I’d had an interest in education in undergrad, and the timing worked out right that I was able to go back to school (to become a teacher) and I landed at Northglenn High School.
They were trying to rebrand themselves as a STEM high school. In my second year, I was able to start teaching an aerospace engineering class. Having some interest there and trying to stay up and current with anything I can to find ways to bring things outside of my curriculum into the classroom was what attracted me to (the program) initially.
Quite honestly, it was space camp, so it was fun too.
What was the coolest thing you did there?
Some of the missions they had us do, because you’re in the simulators.
One of them, I was able to be the pilot. They put you through, ‘Hey, you’re on the space shuttle and you gotta go and dock, and flip all these switches and do everything to protocol.’
And they threw anomalies at you, when all these alarms are going off, and you had to communicate with others. Everybody had their part and everybody had to rely on one another and communicate and work in a team setting under a somewhat stressful situation — not that it was life or death.
It was just a good reminder of how valuable that is to have in the classroom.
What will you bring back to your classroom?
A lot of things. (For one,) a concerted effort to bring intentional team building — if not weekly, then biweekly — into my classroom. And there were a couple different design challenges.
Could you describe one?
There’s a heat shield one where kids will design a heat shield to protect an egg. This was totally a space camp thing, but I’ll run with it. They call them egg-stronauts.
There was also one too: It’s a classic activity for any physics class to do an egg drop. They beefed it up a little bit (by) having teams work together. I’ll call the (teams) Landers and Rovers. One team would do the Lander job. That’s the classic egg drop, where you have to design something to get this thing to land safely. And then once that happens, the other side of the team is designing a Rover to go the maximum distance on a small incline.
(There was also) a water filtration one that mimics recycling urine, of all things, into drinking water that simulates what happens on the International Space Station.
Will the experience change the way you teach?
Yes, absolutely. (Including) with some of the design challenges that were space camp-designed.
Something I haven’t done in the past when I’ve had kids do design challenges (was give them) a budget. So, ‘If you’re trying to build your Lander and your Rover, you can buy cardboard and that costs such-and-such credits, and you can buy tape and that costs so much.’ In the past, when I’ve done prototyping with kids, I’ve had some constraints but beyond that, it’s been a free-for-all: ‘This is what we have and add whatever you want to it!’ Rather than, ‘You only have 1,000 credits to spend and you have to be more intentional in how you’re planning.’
A lot of kids want to dive in and start messing with things. In some ways that’s good. But there’s also something to be said for planning something and sketching it out and discussing, ‘What if we use this instead of this?’ That definitely stuck out to me as something I will incorporate more.
Did you ever want to be an astronaut?
No. But I’ve definitely Googled how to become an astronaut since coming home.
Did you get to keep the suit?
I have the awesome blue flight suit. I’ll probably wear it — not the first day of school but early on. Somebody told me, ‘If you wear it at airports, people will clap.’ I don’t know if I’ll try that. But I’ll definitely wear it to school a couple times.