NAU science program on the move
You never know when the big ideas will come to you. Six years ago, Dr. Barry Lutz, chair of the NAU physics, wanted to begin an outreach program on the reservations, but wasn’t quite sure how to get started.
But one day, sitting on an airplane reading the in-flight magazine, Lutz read an article that would put the wheels in motion for a mobile classroom that would take astronomy, engineering and physics classes to students on Navajo and Hopi.
“I saw an article about Intel donating computers for educational units, and began to wonder if they would donate to a mobile lab,” he says.
He and his program coordinator put together two proposals for Intel, proposals that landed them $30,000 worth of computers. With the addition of a used trailer, supplied by the NAU Foundation, the program, the American Indian Mobile Educational Resources program, came alive.
Since then, the mobile astronomy program has reached an estimated 2,000 students every year from 10-15 reservation schools. The program stays for about a week at each location, offering both teachers and students practical, hands-on instruction in astronomy and engineering.
In the astronomy classes, students can do anything from track a comet’s path to looking at the moons on Jupiter. Computers simulate much of what they learn, and students can then compare the computer simulation to what they actually see in the sky through telescopes. The engineering program, too, is very hands-on. For example, students learn about and then build their own robots.
“It is a very popular program,” says Lutz. “If people didn’t like it, we wouldn’t still be doing it.”
But the high demand for the mobile classroom has taken its toll on the mobile trailer itself. “Driving on rez roads is very hard on the suspension. The suspension on the current trailer has rusted out,” says Lutz, adding that the program also needs new computers.
The AIMER program has just received a $10,000 contribution from Raytheon to help pay for a new trailer, which will be re-oufitted with a new electrical system, a heavy-duty generator, special computer tables and storage compartments. The total project will cost $30,000.
“This contribution from Raytheon will help us expand the program. We always have new ideas to try. We want to do more experiments, as funds permit,” he said.
“Raytheon’s contribution will allow us to keep abreast of technology development and improvements and deliver first rate science and engineering experiments to underserved rural areas such as the Native American reservations,” says Lutz.
The program has filled a gap in students’ education, says Lutz, since it allows students to do more than just read books. With the mobile classroom, students are required to interact with the science, asking the “What if?” question and then seeing the answer in motion. “This is intervention in the school system. This is science that comes to you,” says Lutz.