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Woodlands teacher wins Prime Minister’s Award

By Jesse Marks, The Graphic

Maria Nickel and Prime Minister Stephen Harper pose for a picture after Nickel was awarded the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of the PMO)

Maria Nickel and Prime Minister Stephen Harper pose for a picture after Nickel was awarded the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of the PMO)

A Woodlands Elementary School teacher has won the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence for her out-of-this-world work in orchestrating an experiment to be conducted in outer space.

Maria Nickel, who teaches Technology, Math and Science, submitted her plan to the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, outlining a project to submit and design experiments to fly aboard the International Space Station.

The project, which engaged 400 students and 17 teachers, was the first plan ever to be accepted into the SSEP without revisions. The Interlake School Division was also the first community in Canada to take part in the program.

Nickel’s class of Grade 5 girls wanted to know if jelly from bees would nutritionally degrade in low gravity, and if it could help astronauts in space regain lost bone marrow while in space.

“Our experiment included testing the royal jelly that bees produce, to see if any changes occurred in outer space that could help the astronauts,” Nickel said. “It came in second place behind the CancerCare experiment, which tests cosmic radiation and it’s affect on cells, and if the mutation would be slowed down with the use of green tea, a natural antioxidant.”

When Nickel was seven years old, her father took her to see Star Wars, and she became hooked on space ever since. Now, she’s relayed that passion to her students with her space units.

“The space units seem to spark their attention as well; the mystery, adventure and wonder of ‘could I go out there?’ What’s not to love?” she laughed, “There’s so much we can learn.”

Nickel also incorporates a yearly theme into her curriculum to intrigue her students, she said. This year, they’ll be building mini bases on Mars and creating a hospitable habitat to live in on the Martian surface.

“I try to do something different every year to excite the kids and keep them on track by showcasing something that’s unique. This year, they’ll be working on creating and constructing a livable environment on Mars,” she said.

Woodlands Elementary also has the Space Knights Club, where students get to participate in space-related experiments. This year, the club was the first group to tour Magellan Aerospace in Winnipeg, where engineers helped build the CASSIOPE satellite bus in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency.

Not only does Woodlands teach their students to be technologically savvy, but environmentally aware, too.

“You have to keep ahead of the times, and introduce the kids things that they might be using in their own careers,” Nickel added. “They’re going to be part of the next generation of scientists, environmentalists and astronauts. They’re going to need to know how to use the new technology.”

As part of the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, the CancerCare experiment will be launched into space to be conducted on the International Space Station on Dec. 17 at 9:05 a.m.



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