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Museum’s new classrooms ‘sneak in all the science and math’

One looks like it could be a pod on the International Space Station. Inside another looks like the interior cabin of Air Force One.

They’re both classrooms, actually. Or in the parlance of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, they are “learning nodes,” interactive stops where visitors, particularly school-age students, can learn lessons about science and history and related topics.

Three learning nodes, one each in the Presidential, Space and Global Reach galleries, will open Wednesday in the new $40.8 million expansion at the museum.

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“They’re each a unique type of learning environment,” said Cindy Henry, a museum aerospace educator. “It’s a new opportunity for us to expand that mission where we can go out and reach more people because now we have these three additional learning environments and they’re located among the airplanes.”

The new learning nodes will have more interactive, hands-on, team-building and problem-solving activities than an original that opened two years ago, according to spokesman Rob Bardua.

“Aerospace by nature is a STEM curriculum and we’ve always thought of it as a good hook,” Henry said. “I like using the term ‘use the bait that the fish like,’ so we bring them in and teach them about rocketry, about airplanes, about flying faster and those kind of things. You sneak in all the science and math.”

Since an education department was launched nearly two decades ago, the museum estimates visitors have had two million “encounters” on STEM topics.

A learning node meant to look like the outside of the Destiny space module lab is next to the Space Shuttle mock-up exhibit in the new hangar. There are whiteboards, computers and iPads in the make-believe orbital outpost to learn about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Classes in the mock space lab might focus on Newton’s Law of Physics, or aerospace and material science and “then we can actually go out and look … at the X-planes and look at all those different types of materials that were used and tested and see how they work and what they look like,” Henry said.

Over in the presidential wing of the museum, learning node lessons may expand beyond the traditional focus on science and aerospace and explore real-life topics like presidential elections or the Cuban Missile Crisis, she said. Students can see the planes of former presidents, like John F. Kennedy flew in during the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, for a connection with history.

In the future, the museum wants to unveil a “holoroom” with virtual reality, targeting the 2017-18 school year for an opening, she said.

“We don’t have the equipment just yet, that’s probably going to be budgeted in another year or two, but we’ll have that capability of incorporating that both in the classes and into something the general public can come in and experience,” she said.

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