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News / Northwest

Bellevue middle schoolers over the moon about winning NASA challenge

By Denisa R. Superville, The Seattle Times
Published: July 9, 2024, 8:12am

BELLINGHAM — For just about two minutes, a group of middle school students from Bellevue’s Open Window School were glued to their phones and laptops.

They were not staring at the latest TikTok trend or viral video, but at a rocket lander preparing for takeoff in the Mojave Desert in California. The students had designed experiments inside one of the 15 flight boxes at the top of the rocket lander, which was about to make a short two-minute flight over an area that simulated the moon’s surface.

The five experiments the students were running included using AI to detect craters on the moon’s surface and investigating how launch forces affect seeds of the Pacific dogwood tree.

The Open Window students were winners in this year’s NASA TechRise Student Challenge, a program now in its fourth year that aims to encourage middle and high schoolers to consider careers in engineering and space. The students at Open Window, a private K-8 school, were in a group of winners in the rocket-powered lander category.

“We were all really proud and excited to actually see it fly,” said Connor West, the team’s “computer genius,” who was in charge of soldering and coding.

Zoe Fulay, 12, who was in sixth grade this year, was pretty stoked for a number of reasons when she woke up around 3:45 a.m. on June 21 during her family vacation in Hawaii to watch the launch. (As sometimes happens with these things, the first launch attempt three days earlier was delayed for technical reasons).

For one, the vehicle had been used to test actual real-life moon missions. Another was that most of the other winners, who hailed from Oregon to Maine, were high school teams. Her 11-member team consisted of middle schoolers.

Zoe had always been interested in computer science and engineering, so she jumped at the chance to join the team. Along the way, she picked up new skills, such as coding in different languages and designing a scientific research experiment.

“There’s a lot of trial and error,” she said. “It was my first real-world insight into how scientists and engineers are working on making their experiments.”

The winners got $1,500 along with a flight box from NASA to build their experiments. They also received technical support from Future Engineers, an organization that supports STEM programs in schools.

Students from Eckstein Middle School in Seattle and Friday Harbor High School in Friday Harbor were also challenge winners in the high-altitude balloon division.

The Open Window students spent countless hours during lunch and after school this spring designing the instrument and research.

Avni Murarka, 13, was used to watching rocket launches with her father, who works in the industry. But it was quite different seeing her handiwork in the same light, she said. It “was pretty interesting and just pretty cool,” she said.

“A lot of parents kind of limit what children can do, and they kind of limit [that] by saying, ‘Oh, you’re not that old. There’s not much that you can do, there’s not much that you can change,’ “ said Murarka, who watched the launch from India. “But seeing that something that I worked on was going through that same process that scientists do — I think that was pretty eye-opening for me.”

While she doesn’t see herself getting into engineering — she is interested in medicine — she learned about AI, which will be an important skill in any future career, she said.

“I think that AI is going to be an incredible part of medicine — whether it comes to diagnosing diseases or looking at medical imagery,” she said. “That’s just one way that this project is helping me [with] my future career.”

Students do not always have opportunities to test out what they are learning in class in the real world, said Trudi Hoogenboom, a planetary scientist who was a temporary science teacher at Open Window School this spring and led the project.

“I think the coolest thing they learn is how an engineering project gets integrated with a scientific research project,” Hoogenboom said. “Just learning the engineering process. They get to be real scientists. They’re performing real scientific research that hasn’t been done before.”

More students should have access to those opportunities, she said. Even as a teacher, she picked up a lot from the students, she said. Coding, for example, was not her forte.

“I wish that for every middle school class,” she said. “It was really great to see them work together on their own strengths.”

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It was not easy getting the project to the finish line, they said. Right before the students were supposed to send in the flight box, they found it was too heavy and was overheating. Screws were missing. They had to remove three heavy magnets and drill new holes.

The group will get the data on their experiments in a few weeks. They hope to work with researchers at the University of Washington to analyze them and, possibly, write a research paper on their findings, said Grady Moore, 13.

The project may have inspired Ellie Klesert, 13, who was on the team that designed the experiments to test the effects of the launch on lunar soil stimulants and dogwood seeds, to consider a career in STEM.

“I never really thought I’d be interested in space,” said Klesert, whose mother is a scientist. “For me, it just kind of seemed like I’d rather stay on Earth. But after going through the entire process, knowing the process and then troubleshooting, it’s really cool. I think I probably want to go into STEM more when I grow up, especially since my mom is a scientist.”

The project was a dream come true for Sophie Mathew, 13, and Nick Nevils, 13, both of whom were interested in working with NASA. But not all the students who participated have interest in engineering or space exploration. Still, they said, they learned a lot about team-building, troubleshooting and patience. Murarka and her team said middle schoolers should give these programs and competitions a shot.

“I think STEM teaches problem-solving, and, in our case, teamwork and cooperation and understanding the process,” Murarka said. “I know Ellie talked about being patient, learning how to troubleshoot. You could hate science and math or engineering, but I think these are valuable life skills, and the more you participate in these competitions, I think the more that you gain.”