August 15, 2019

Help students with a “gravity assist”

Posted by Laura Guertin

I’m away from campus attending a conference – tricky to do with the start of the semester so close. It’s not a surprise that I have the syllabus and the constant swirl of new ideas to engage students on my mind. One panel session I sat in on was titled How NASA Uses Podcasts to Educate, Engage and Excite New Audiences. Although the history of podcasting at NASA and the different approaches to the different NASA podcasts ( were fascinating to hear, one item jumped out to me that I am carrying into the beginning of the fall semester – and it happens to be not the content of any one podcast but a podcast title.

Maybe you already are familiar with this podcast and listen to the episodes (currently in its third season), but Gravity Assist grabbed my attention like no other podcast title. Hosted by Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science, Gravity Assist documents a conversation between Dr. Green and a scientist on discoveries and mysteries in space science. Dr. Green also asks each scientist about their “gravity assist“, a moment in their life where something or someone helped propel them to their goal(s).

For those not familiar with how spacecraft use a gravity assist after launch, this video by the Canadian Space Agency explains:


Dr. Green gave an example during the talk of how he once visited a public event to talk about space science. Some time after the visit, a father of one of the kids in attendance emailed Dr. Green, saying that just by hearing him enthusiastically discussing space science and discoveries, his son became focused in school, started performing better, and was working hard towards his own goals. Dr. Green was a “gravity assist” for that student, and he reminded us that we can be a gravity assist for others.

The gravity assist maneuver by spacecraft is not a new idea – it has been discussed in publications since the early 1900’s and was first used with the Luna 3 launch in 1959. But it is a new idea for how I can think about working with my students throughout the semester. During the 15 weeks I have these students, I can put them on a pathway towards their goals (mastering certain content or skills, understanding the relevance of why Earth science matters to their own lives, etc.). But then, the semester will end, and the slingshot moment happens. Students will be on their own trajectory, a new trajectory towards new courses and a new semester, but hopefully taking a piece of my course with them towards an even greater goal.

I’m still playing around with this concept in my mind, but just like Dr. Green, I hope that I can provide a gravity assist for my students this fall semester.