“You go into a class of fifth or sixth graders and you ask them how many want to be an engineer and nobody raises their hand,” he said. “We say they create iPods, phones, computers, airplanes and robots. Then we do the workshop and they get to build and test their robots, and by the end of the class, we ask the same question and everybody raises their hand!”
McFarlane, who doubles as a Sparks High School teacher, is the Lead Flight Director at the Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada (CLCNN) where northern Nevada students of all ages can experience space and science through simulated missions. The program has partnered with Sparks High School in hopes of finding a permanent home for the Challenger Center to inspire Washoe County and northern Nevada students to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses, as well as aerospace engineering, physics and other science-related fields contributing to space exploration.
“Research has indicated that when kids hit fifth or sixth grade, they start to see a huge drop off in the interest,” McFarlane said of the STEM curriculum, “And that is where we lose a lot of kids in science, and we cannot afford to do that. We need to help them see themselves as successful. Who knows how many students we have lost because they got discouraged when it came to math and science. They didn’t see the relevance of it or maybe it seemed foreign and difficult and they gave up.”
McFarlane is especially excited to teach young students because he recently returned from the Honeywell Educators at Space Academy, providing him with an opportunity only allotted to 210 people worldwide this year. The week-long academy included 45 hours of professional development with other educators and simulated astronaut training with scenario-based space missions, survival skills and interactive flight programming.
Now that he has returned to Nevada to prepare the curriculum for Sparks High School and the CLCNN, McFarlane said much of what he learned through simulations and interactive work will be the basis for workshops and classes this year. Though the northern Nevada site is scaled down considerably, McFarlane said the purpose will go unchanged.
“The neat thing about this approach, and what I think really makes it work, is it is a story and the kids are the characters in the story making the decisions that lead to the outcome,” he said. “They are talking and communicating with their team members but it really is a narrative. The role playing and characterizations are all part of it. They literally put on the flight suit and be part of the team facing these problem-solving decisions.
“Rather than looking at the math problems in the back of the book, they actually have to figure out how to navigate, where to land and it is extremely important that they come up with the right answers.”
McFarlane returned to the Rail City with plenty of new material for the upcoming school year, which comes with the added task of trying to advance the curriculum for the CLCNN and Washoe County School District. The non-profit group plans to “pioneer and pilot” courses that will work as dual credit for high school students through the University of Nevada, Reno in engineering and science.
McFarlane said the opportunity to experience training at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center comes with the added responsibility of spreading the knowledge, which he said begins with his curriculum and programs.
“The most exciting thing, of course, is the teamwork and working with other people to solve a problem,” he said about installing his lessons in the classroom. “You have to help kids get engaged and instead of just lecturing to them, they need to become a part of the process. They always reinforced that at space camp.
“I think it is wonderful that there are companies like Honeywell out there that have that kind of vision. I wouldn’t be able to afford going (to the Space Academy) and so that is just a phenomenal opportunity. And again, when you have been given that kind of privilege, you have the obligation to share that with as many people as possible.”