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Ground Control to Nettleton STEAM

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  • Corey Womack
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I can remember when Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” came out, when I was a kid.  My dad – interested in both history and aeronautics – bought the film on VHS.  We wore that tape out.


For years, I knew the story without grasping its historical relevance but, even before I was a teenager, the emotional journey of Jim Lovell and the other astronauts aboard the spacecraft was compelling and impactful. Who can forget Tom Hanks looking right at the camera?


“Houston. We have a problem.”


It's odd; as we grow up and change, the things we remember about stories – the most important narrative aspects – also change.  As a kid, I was intrigued by heart-pounding sequences and life-or-death scenarios. But, now, random scenes from obscure movies will resonate with me for the oddest of reasons. While the events of a story stay the same, how we retell those events to ourselves evolves with us. A single story, while concrete, can provide a lifetime of inspiration, if told well.


A New Mission


In November of 2020, I was invited to help produce an event at Nettleton STEAM Intermediate School. Their students had been awarded the chance to share a live, “downlink” conversation with actual astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The Arkansas Department of Education called on ArkansasIDEAS to help livestream this downlink so students from all over the state (and globe) might learn from this once-in-a-lifetime event. They also requested a professional development course on Project-Based Learning.


I had no idea what project-based learning was …


This was exciting, but I was also very busy. And, so, I answered my emails and helped schedule the day as efficiently as I could. Nettleton STEAM was an important assignment in a long list of assignments.  That was … until the location scout …


The Heart of Project-Based Learning


Another producer and I visited the campus in mid-November and met STEAM Principal Cathelene Gray and Instructional Facilitator Kelli Cochran. These ladies led us around their campus showing us all of the great student-led and -created projects at their school. Things like a student-designed playground, both raised-bed and hydroponic gardening, even a student-conceived dance floor made of recycled materials.


Nettleton STEAM student, a young brunette girl with mask, in garden


This was project-based learning in action. By giving students the power to change the face of their own school, Nettleton STEAM had created an environment where students couldn’t help but be engaged.  Once the projects were outlined, the talented teachers would double-back and build their standards-based lessons into the students’ plans.


Young, masked African American boy sitting at desk in Nettleton STEAM classroom


What’s more, Nettleton STEAM had spent the summer and fall semester of 2020 restructuring their already nimble curriculum to center most of the school year’s work around space station topics.  Students in third through sixth grades spent that fall designing robotic arms, water filters, plant growth chambers and space suits.

Young, white, brunette boy in a mask operates a mechanical arm in a Nettleton STEAM classroom


Meanwhile, the Nettleton STEAM faculty and administration organized Zoom lectures and location visits from community partners like Arkansas State University, while the city of Jonesboro declared Nov. 2 a city-wide STEM Day in celebration of the school’s accomplishments.


I left the location scout re-energized …


Mission Accomplished


Over the next several weeks, ArkansasIDEAS teams spent days at the STEAM campus – interviewing teachers, students and administration about the semester’s projects, and preparing for the big day.


Young blonde girl in mask and glasses and young blonde boy in gaiter and camo jacket sit in Nettleton STEAM classroom with shelf with NASA projects in the background


On Dec. 10, the downlink went off flawlessly – STEAM students shined as they posed thoughtful, researched questions to Dr. Kate Rubins and Dr. Shannon Walker aboard the International Space Station. As our team packed their equipment and headed home, they knew they had captured something special.


On April 15, 2021, Arkansas PBS will rebroadcast a special, documentary version of the Nettleton STEAM downlink. “To the Stars and Back” has proven to be one of the most rewarding projects that it has been my pleasure to work on in my career – but not necessarily for the story that you see on screen.


A Community Achievement


While the conversation between the students and astronauts is powerful in its own right, I can’t help but think of a movie scene that played on repeat in my mind as I drove back from that location scout in mid-November.


In “Apollo 13” – after everything goes wrong – the NASA ground crew is struggles to find a solution for the astronauts stranded thousands of miles away. A group of scientists sit around a large table and tackle the “impossible” task of fitting a square carbon-dioxide filter into a round hole.


Masked, female Nettleton STEAM educator with red curly hair in a red jacket and grey shirt standing outside in front of school building


As a kid, this might’ve been the most boring scene in the movie. But, as an adult, having spent the day speaking with two impassioned educators as they bragged – not only on the excitement and inquisitiveness of their students, but also on the countless community partnerships which made the downlink possible – I couldn’t help be reminded of the huge community effort it takes to accomplish any project of this size. And, while a mission accomplished is inspiring, it is only as moving as the vast, untold efforts and love that get you there.


Hopefully our documentary tells STEAM’s story well enough that will remember it – for countless reasons and inspirations – for years to come.


Tune in for “To the Stars and Back” on Arkansas PBS at 7:30 p.m. April 15. The Nettleton STEAM students are truly something to behold. And, as you watch, remember the “ground crew” of passionate teachers and community leaders who worked tirelessly teaching these students the tools to ensure their mission was a success.




Thursday, April 15, 2021


“To the Stars and Back,” 7:30 p.m.