Wichita’s Mueller Elementary School is about to get some out-of-this-world playground equipment: a NASA-grade lunar rover, Mars rover and space plane.
This fall, the aerospace and engineering magnet school near 18th and Grove will be the first school in the country to launch the NASA-inspired Space Discovery Institute program, which gives students hands-on experience with aerospace technology, officials announced this week.
“This will be the flagship,” said Arthur Eldridge, chairman of the institute and an education ambassador for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“We’ve been working on it for several years, just getting everything in place,” he said. “We hope to have it all up and operational this fall.”
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Plans call for more than an acre of land outside Mueller Elementary to be transformed into lunar and Mars bases. Sitting on the playground will be a space plane – the insides of which will be transformed into a working laboratory for 30 students – as well as fully operational lunar and Mars rovers.
“It’s not like a joystick and you just drive it around,” said Eldridge, a retired Air Force F-4 pilot and NASA flight crew instructor.
“They’ll actually be learning to drive those as our jet propulsion laboratory folks do: You have to propose a plan … and then fit in the mathematics that will take it from one point to another. This is real stuff.”
Principal Judy Wright said the program will be “a phenomenal opportunity” for Mueller students, who begin learning basic science, technology, engineering and math concepts in kindergarten.
“To actually have some shuttles out on my playground – life-size shuttles and astronaut suits that my babies can put on – and to get in there and really get the feel for being in outer space? It is just so way cool,” Wright said.
“It’s going to tie in with our magnet theme and what we’re already doing, but just kick it up to a whole other level.”
The proposed outdoor space station is just the latest coup for the school, which four years ago received a $2.1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education to provide more enhanced science and engineering lessons and attract a wider group of students. That grant funded a flight simulator, weather lab, broadcast studio, teacher training programs, kid-sized lab coats and other equipment.
Eldridge said the Space Discovery Institute chose Wichita as the first site for its STEM-education program because of the city’s commitment to aviation and aerospace industries.
“We didn’t want to be confused with a game show kind of program. This is a serious aerospace program, and Wichita is a heavy aerospace community,” he said. “We’ll need folks on the ground, volunteers to help us get these things in place and to help mentor students.”
Funding for the program is provided primarily by private donors and sponsors, Eldridge said. The basic equipment for the Mueller program will be provided by the education arm of NASA, he said, but it will cost about $100,000 to get everything installed and landscaped. That cost will be covered by donations to the Space Discovery Institute.
“We already have most of the hardware – NASA hardware that we repurpose for education (programs),” Eldridge said. “But when you have a Mars base and a lunar base, that requires some aesthetics.
“It’s a living laboratory, so you have to lay the facility out a certain way, and it takes a little bit of money to do that.”
Though the program will be housed at Mueller, which has about 485 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, it will be made available to students from other schools and nearby universities, Eldridge said.
Wright, the Mueller principal, said she and her staff already are excited by the possibilities.
“We already do a lot of hands-on science activities here, but to have these other experiences is just going to be amazing,” she said. “Kids learn better if they can be engaged and they can touch and they can feel, so they’re going to learn and retain that information even more.”