NASA is testing an innovative approach to help improve student performance in mathematics by challenging them to solve the real-world problems involved with controlling airplanes in the sky.

During the month of April, NASA scientists and education experts at NASA Ames Research Center, located in California’s Silicon Valley, are conducting student evaluations of ‘Smart Skies’, one of NASA’s newest math-related educational products. Smart Skies takes math to a new level by adding an experiential, hands-on component that enables students to participate in real-life interactive simulations. The evaluation begins on April 5, 2005 with middle schools in the San Francisco Bay area and continues through the end of the month.

“We are very excited about this,” said Robert Jacobsen, manager of NASA’s Airspace Systems Program located at NASA Ames. “Both retired and active FAA air traffic controllers from Oakland Center have volunteered to help as docents and to give guidance and support to the students who are participating in the exercise.”

The Smart Skies project is designed to encourage students to explore, discover and understand mathematics and its applications in daily life. At the heart of Smart Skies is a carefully constructed set of instructional materials that includes classroom materials, Web-based simulations and the hands-on simulation.

“The goal is to offer multiple opportunities to develop math skills through application to real problems,” said Greg Condon, the creator of Smart Skies.

In the classroom, Smart Skies begins with basic problems involving two airplanes in paper- and-pencil exercises. As the students improve, they move on to more complex problems involving multiple aircraft and approach speeds and a Web-based simulation.

For the hands-on component of the Smart Skies evaluation, students will travel to NASA Ames and ‘become’ air traffic controllers, pilots and scientific observers as they solve increasingly complex math problems related to distance, rate and time. The simulation takes place in ‘Sector 33’, modeled after the FAA’s Oakland En Route Center Sector 33, located east of Modesto, Calif. That sector controls air traffic approaching the Bay area’s three international airports from the east.

In their role as pilots, students move electronically instrumented model aircraft along a designated route of flight laid out on the floor. A metronome is used to help them maintain an assigned speed. Walkie-talkies allow them to hear instructions from the student controllers.

In the simulated control room, student controllers watch the aircraft movement on a computer screen that displays speed and distance information broadcast from the model aircraft. Using the mathematics they have learned in a series of paper-and-pencil classroom exercises, they try to determine if and when the airplanes will fly too close to each another. If problems arise, they radio the student pilots to adjust their speed or route.

As students improve, they are given the task of controlling multiple ‘San Francisco International Airport’ arrivals that approach from different directions and at different speeds. The student controllers maintain aircraft separation as they line up flights so they cross over the same location in sequence.

The hands-on simulation is designed to add an element of immediacy to problem solving, and to train students to quickly analyze problems and make complex decisions and calculations in their heads Smart Skies was created at NASA Ames under the sponsorship of the Airspace Systems Program as part of its commitment to NASA’s mission to ‘inspire the next generation of explorers’ to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. The Airspace Systems Program is a division of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate located in Washington, D.C. For additional information about Smart Skies™ visit:

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