Posts Tagged 'NASA'

Science at Home: Playing Video Games and Advancing Science

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that playing video games can help improve your brain. But did you know that playing video games can also help improve science?

There’s a growing trend of turning real scientific problems into video games and having people, rather than computers, work to solve them. Why use people? Well, it turns out that there are many things that the human brain can do better than a computer (especially if that human brain has been improved by playing video games – it’s a win-win circle).

Here are some new ways to have fun and help science, and all you need is a computer.

Good at solving visual puzzels? Try Foldit, a game that challenges you to find new ways to fold proteins.


Protein Folding


Proteins, composed of long chains of joined-together amino acids, exist in each of the trillions of cells in your body and are the chief  workers within those cells. Without proteins, you can’t live. For as fantastic as proteins are, they have one big problem: they’re small. So small, in fact, that scientists can’t see their shapes. And when it comes to proteins, shape is very important. Why? Proteins fold. Protein folding is the physical process in which polypeptides, or chains of amino acids, fold into specific three-dimensional structures. The shape of a protein determines its function, and the better scientists can understand a protein’s shape, the better they can understand what a protein does.

Foldit takes those amino acid chains and turns them into a sort of scientific Tetris. Small proteins can have hundreds of amino acids, large proteins often have thousands. By following the biological rules of protein folding (e.g. hydrophobic amino acids need to be on the inside of the protein), the goal is to find the protein’s most stable state – the shape it would fold into in real life. Find the lowest state, get the most points.

The researchers behind Foldit keep track of every solution every player finds. Because there are so many ways that even a small protein can fold itself, figuring out which way is the best way is a continuous problem in biology. Right now, the goal of the game is to show that human protein folders can be more effective than computers at predicting protein structures. If this turns out to be true, the folding strategies used by people will be programed into computer software, and players may someday be asked to work on proteins that do not have known structures and even design new proteins.

Watch Foldit in action!

Want to work on a slightly bigger scale than proteins? Check out Zooniverse. Zooniverse is the largest internet Citizen Science project, and it asks members to help NASA, museums and universities around the world explore the universe. That sounds like a big project (and it is!), but the more people who participate, the more the world learns about everything happening out in space.


Andromeda Island Universe


How can you participate in Zooniverse? Well, take your pick! Want to explore photographs of the moon, looking for craters, boulders and even the occasional piece of space hardware left behind by moon landings? Or, maybe you’d be more interested in monitoring images of the sun looking for solar flares? How about the chance to be the first person to see evidence of a supernova? There are over 300,000 people participating in the six Zooniverse projects, and they can always use a couple more.

The two great thing about all these video games? First: You get to decide when to play, what to play, and how long to play. You’re a researcher on your own terms. Second? Scientists really do use the data you create. So go forth, play games, and help advance science!

P.S. There’s a third great thing about the games: they’re really fun. I can’t stop playing Moon Zoo.


Rocket and Roll

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Have you ever wanted to help wake up an astronaut?

NASA is looking for the songs that will help the crew start their days on the last few remaining Space Shuttle missions.  For you musically talented folks out there, there’s an opportunity to upload an original song to be played on STS -134, scheduled to launch in February of 2011.  NASA will choose the best of the submissions to be voted on by the public starting February 8th, with all submissions due by the 10th of January, 2011.  So get working on your musical masterpiece to be played for the entire world to hear.

Of course, for those of us that couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, there’s also a chance to vote for one of the forty tunes that have already been used as a wake-up call for the astronauts on previous missions.  You can choose from such diverse songs as Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon, and Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded me with Science. The Beatles are the only act with two songs in the running, Here Comes the Sun, and Good Day Sunshine.  The Rolling Stones have an entrant in their hit Start me Up, while Canadian rockers Rush, are represented by the appropriately named Countdown.  There’s even competition between John William’s Theme from Star Wars and the title music from Star Trek, complete with a voice over by the original Captain Kirk, William Shatner.

For more information and the chance to submit your original composition or vote for your favorite song visit

Lambkin in Space, part 2

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

Space Shuttle Discovery lifting off this morning (photo courtesy of NASA)

Back in November, we blogged about astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, set to become the first Fort Collins High School graduate in space. Well, early this morning, Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off and carried the first Lambkin into orbit (two Lambkins, actually: Metcalf-Lindenburger, and a stuffed FCHS Lambkin mascot named Clyde!).

The mission, Discovery’s 38th flight, is carrying a crew of seven, including two other rookie astronauts besides Metcalf-Lindenburger (the last rookies who will fly on the Shuttle). The flight is scheduled to last 13 days and will deliver a multi-purpose logistics module called Leonardo, that will be attached to the International Space Station temporarily and then returned to the shuttle’s cargo bay. Leonardo is packed full of supplies, new crew sleeping quarters, and science racks that will be moved into the station’s laboratories.

Metcalf-Lindenburger is a member of the 2004 class of Educator-Astronauts, and her duties on this flight will include educational activities focusing on robotics and promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and math. We will be following the mission closely here at the Museum, and you can too:

Mission page:

NASA’s teacher and student resources, and activities related to robotics:

Virtual Space Community teleconference with Space Center Houston on Dec. 29

by Deb Price, Virtual Space Community Educator

The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center is hosting a videoconference with Space Center Houston on December 29. Come by the Museum to participate in Under Pressure, a program presented via live, interactive videoconference in collaboration with Space Center Houston.

Between 11 am and 1 pm, participate in Suit Up for Space to make a miniature “space suit” out of balloons. Then at 1 pm, the Museum will connect with educators at Space Center Houston for the  videoconference Under Pressure, during which visitors will learn how and why astronaut suits are designed they way they are, and visitors will have a chance to test the durability of their homemade, balloon space suit against meteorite impacts.

The videoconference is possible through a Virtual Space Community grant to the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center from NASA’s Space Center Houston. Virtual Space Community programs encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies and careers, particularly those related to space science. The event is free with paid admission to the Museum. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact our Education Department at 970-416-2768.

Lambkin in Space

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Now, this is a Fort Collins-related flight story worthy media coverage.

I’ve heard several times about the Fort Collins High School (FCHS) graduate who is an astronaut. On Monday, November 9, an article appeared in both the Coloradoan and the Denver Post announcing that when Astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger (FCHS, Class of 1993) flies on the shuttle in March of 2010, she will carry with her a stuffed lamb, the mascot of FCHS, named Clyde who will be dressed in a homemade, gold-lamé flight suit.

Metcalf-Lindenburger represents what can happen when you follow dreams: she was a science teacher who told her students that she wanted to be an astronaut. As only kids can, they replied to her, “Why don’t you become an astronaut?” Instead of making excuses and listing reasons she couldn’t, Metcalf-Lindenburger applied and was accepted into NASA’s Astronaut Training Program. In just a few short months, she’ll become the first Lambkin in space.


I find this significant because Metcalf-Lindenburger succeeded at STEM-based education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in our local school district, which provided her the foundation for her college studies as well as her time in NASA’s Astronaut Training Program. Studies have shown that U.S. students in fourth grade rank high in academic performance in math and science when compared with other industrialized nations. That ranking consistently drops as students progress through the grades. By twelfth grade, U.S. students’ academic performance in math and science is poor when compared with other industrialized nations; our ranking is near the bottom of the lists, some of which number over 40 countries.[1]

Other statistics address the change in STEM education performance by U.S. girls as they progress in school. Studies have shown that girls perform as well as, if not better, than boys in STEM-based education in elementary school. This begins to change in sixth grade and by the time girls graduate from high school, they are significantly underperforming in math and science when compare to boys.[2]

It is important to note that underperformance, by both U.S. students generally as well as girls specifically, is not a result of lack of aptitude. Metcalf-Lindenburger clearly had aptitude, a desire to learn, and a community of teachers (not to mention family) that helped her to not just perform well in STEM education, but to excel and apply those skills to a profession that requires exceptional STEM abilities.

Congratulations on your pending space flight, Ms. Metcalf-Lindenburger!  You can be sure that we here at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center will be using your story to encourage youth to follow their dreams and work hard at their math and science classes in school. By the way, would you consider bringing Clyde to the Museum for a visit after your mission? I think I can get you in for free.

[1] U.S. Department of Education, National Digest of Education Statistics


[2] National Science Foundation

*image courtesy of The Denver Post

Science at home: HiRISE images of Mars

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

Thanks to amazing new pictures from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera mounted on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, you can imagine that you’re pressing your nose to the window of a plane flying over the Red Planet: cruising Mars from the comfort of your chair.

The camera is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and is part of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) mission. The MRO was launched August 12, 2005, and is searching for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. Scientific instruments aboard the MRO are zooming in for extreme close-up photography of the martian surface, analyzing minerals, looking for subsurface water, tracing how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere, and monitoring daily global weather.

The HiRISE camera is the largest ever flown on a planetary mission. This camera is capable of showing objects as small as three feet across — the size of your dining room table!

HiRISE image of Victoria Crater on Mars

HiRISE image of Victoria Crater on Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Gullies at the edge of Hale Crater, Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Gullies at the edge of Hale Crater, Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Moon memories

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

July 20th, 1969 —

I remember sitting on the brightly-striped multi-colored carpet (it was the Sixties, after all) of our family room, with my brother Mark, my Mom and Dad, as we watched the ghostly black and white images of the first Moon landing. When we heard the words “Tranquility Base here — the Eagle has landed,” I looked over at my Mom, sitting in her favorite chair, and saw tears streaming down her face. I was only eight years old — mostly I couldn’t begin to figure out how we could see TV pictures from the Moon, since clearly there weren’t any TV stations up there — but remembering that moment, shared with my family, brings tears to my eyes now, forty years later.

Okay, if you’re like me, you can’t even believe that it’s been 40 years. To celebrate the anniversary, the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center is hosting “To the Moon and Back,” an exhibit of NASA artifacts, opening Saturday, July 25th and running through August 29th. The day the exhibit opens will be full of hands-on space activities, live video broadcasts from Space Center Houston, and opportunities for those of us who were “there” those 40 years ago to share our memories of the event. Not quite that long in the tooth? Then we hope you’ll share your visions and hopes for what space travel can be in the future.

But if you can’t be here at the Museum to share your memories on July 25th, you can share them through this blog. Just click the “Comment” link up at the top of this post and tell your story (and read other people’s stories). Again, if you weren’t there in ’69, you can describe your vision of space travel in the future — and we’d love to hear from kids, too! In return for sharing your story, we’d like to offer you a buy-one-get-one-free admission for you and a friend to come see “To the Moon and Back” — to celebrate — to remember — to dream — to wonder.

nasa banner

Take a trip to the Moon and back at the Museum

by Deb Price, Science Educator

The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center is opening a temporary exhibit, “To the Moon and Back,” Saturday, July 25 with a variety of special activities and programs. The event celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Live video broadcasts from Space Center Houston at 10:30 am, 11:30 am, and 12:30 pm will revisit the historical significance of that first touchdown on the Moon, plus provide a glimpse of upcoming missions to the Moon and to Mars. Interactive, hands-on space activities will be offered from 11 am to 2 pm in the gallery and the Museum courtyard.

Visitors will also have a chance to share memories of the first moon landing, and children are invited to share their vision for future space missions.

The temporary exhibit features artifacts on loan from NASA, including space helmets from the Apollo and space shuttle flights, moon rock replicas, in-flight space suit, astronaut food, and photographs of astronauts and other space scientists. The exhibit will be at the Museum through the end of August. The Museum is offering the exhibit and special activities through its partnership with Virtual Space Community, an outreach program through Space Center Houston.

All July 25th activities are included in the price of admission: $4 for adults, $3 for children (ages 3-12) and seniors (60+). Children 2 and under are free. The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center is at 200 Mathews St. in downtown Fort Collins. For more information, go to the website at or call 970-221-6738.

Space science blasts off at Webber Jr. High School

by Deb Price, Education Coordinator, Discovery Science Center

On April 23, students from Webber Junior High in Fort Collins participated in a mock NASA launch. It might as well have been the real thing:  7th-9th graders were chosen to participate in the program by submitting applications, resumes, and references, and then given one of many jobs including astronaut, mission control staff, flight director, or engineer, just to name a few. They took their jobs seriously; as Mission Control guided the astronauts on board a life-size model of the shuttle, the room was utterly quiet.  The shuttle pilot flew the “craft,” and if he crashed, the mission would have turned into a rescue operation.

During the mission, the astronauts performed experiments “in space” designed by other students while the ground crew monitored the flight. A video conference with Space Center Houston halfway through the morning let students experience what it’s really like for astronauts to live in space, including how they eat…and even details about how they go to the bathroom!

Space is such an engaging topic for students. They are enamored with the idea of space travel, and it motivates them to increase their science, math, engineering, and technology skills. These students were not just “playing” astronaut—for two days they WERE part of a NASA mission, even designing their own mission emblem.

Colorado has many connections with NASA, through a plethora of companies that produce, design, or build components for space missions. Discovery Science Center and the Fort Collins Museum are also part of Virtual Space Community, an educational outreach of Space Center Houston.

There are budding young scientists in our midst here in Colorado, and who knows — the first astronaut to land on Mars could be from right here in Fort Collins! As astronaut John Glenn said, “The most important thing we can do is inspire young minds and to advance the kind of science, math and technology education that will help youngsters take us to the next phase of space travel.”

Webber Jr. High students during their NASA mission

Webber Jr. High students during their NASA mission

Webber Jr. High's space shuttle mock-up

Webber Jr. High's space shuttle mock-up

Virtual Space Community event this Saturday at DSC

by Jason Wolvington, Associate Director, Discovery Science Center

As you may know, Discovery Science Center was recently awarded a $15,000 grant by Space Center Houston to participate in the national Virtual Space Community program. Discovery Science Center is one of four science museums chosen across the nation to launch the program.

vsc-logo3Our first program, “Journey Through the Solar System,” was a huge success. The live video conference enabled visitors to ask questions directly to Space Center Houston experts, as well as take a “virtual” tour of the exhibits and spacecrafts on display at the space center.

Our next Virtual Space Community event is this Saturday, April 4, at noon at Discovery Science Center. Take a trip back in time to remember the beginning of space exploration through a special video conference from Space Center Houston, and look forward in time to NASA‘s plans for future space exploration. Visit our StarLab planetarium shows, and take part in other hands-on rocket activities. Hope to see you there! And keep your eyes peeled here on our blog for an exciting space program and exhibit happening later this summer.

March 2023

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 48 other subscribers

Flickr Photos