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Connecting with NASA: Falcons Flyers after school program selected for STEM Challenge

Williams Elementary-Middle School students Dolores Gutierrez, Jimmy Ledlow, Kaytlynn Fensel, Julian Centeno, Ma. Bea Raivala, Leo Stradling and Belle Martinez are participating in the NASA STEM Challenge. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

Williams Elementary-Middle School students Dolores Gutierrez, Jimmy Ledlow, Kaytlynn Fensel, Julian Centeno, Ma. Bea Raivala, Leo Stradling and Belle Martinez are participating in the NASA STEM Challenge. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

WILLIAMS, Ariz. - Over the next few months, students at Williams Elementary-Middle School will be looking beyond the Earth’s sky and up at the stars as they use real mission data and experiences in a unique partnership with NASA.

The school is one of 10 locations to be chosen to represent Arizona in the NASA STEM Challenges for the 2020-2021 school year.

“This is new for the state of Arizona,” said WEMS science teacher Trina Siegfried, “I’m really excited we were selected and will have live NASA engineers and scientists to work and collaborate with.

The NASA STEM Challenge will be a component of the grant funded Falcons Flyers afterschool program at WEMS, where Siegfried is the facilitator.

Siegfried said the school was nominated through the Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Center, which helps fund the after school program at WEMS.

NASA, along with the U.S. Department of Education, has developed the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) challenges to allow middle school students to connect with NASA scientists and engineers on their designs. Students are given opportunities to interact with employees, ask questions, and learn what it is like to work at NASA.

Students in the program are given an opportunity to select one or two challenges that are based on real mission data and experiences that take place during human and robotic exploration of the solar system. Students who take part in this project with NASA will learn about the unique set of challenges facing NASA scientists and engineers when they are charting courses to new destinations and designing new innovative solutions to problems.

The program is open to third through eighth graders with challenges such as developing a game for play in microgravity aboard the International Space Station, developing a drag device to slow a spacecraft for entry, descent and landing, or developing a radiation shielding system for a spacecraft.

“I’m starting sixth through eighth graders right now to get my feet wet, and then I’m hoping to offer it to elementary students,” Siegfried said.

She said students have already assigned themselves jobs on the design and research committees.

“They already began trying to do that without much direction,” Siegfried said. “They knew that each person would need to be responsible for something and then we would need to collaborate. My eighth graders are used to doing that in the lab. They’ve already started to own it, which I’m really proud of.”

Siegfried said the 21st Century Grant coordinators have helped allocate money for the project, and the students will be responsible for developing a cost estimate.

“I’ve told the kids that I’ve done my part to help secure the money, and now they need to get to work,” she said. “They’ve already figured out they need a vacuum pump and few different things to do their testing and research.”

The STEM Challenges aim to help students understand the engineering design process. Students are presented with a challenge or problem and using the process work in teams to complete activities and experiments to develop solutions to the original problem. These challenges facilitate teamwork, problem solving, and brainstorming ideas very similar to what real-world engineers encounter. Students are also required to document their work as they develop and test their design.

Siegfried said WEMS students have decided to complete a Pressure Suit Challenge, and may do another challenge if time permits.

In the Pressure Suit Challenge, students work in teams to design and build a pressure suit that must protect the pilot or astronaut from a vacuum situation. It must completely surround the individual to provide the necessary protection to the human body, and it must be constructed of materials that are not affected by the vacuum environment. The suit and the person wearing it must fit completely within the vacuum chamber and have a total mass less than 50 grams.

Students will be using materials such as aluminum foil, balloons, marshmallows, skewers, bubble wrap, cardboard, cotton balls, plastic eggs, paper bags, and modeling clay, among other small household items for the challenge.

To submit their work, students will create a short video documenting their response to NASA’s challenge. In April, NASA will then choose the top entries and invite those students to connect once more in a culminating special recognition event.

Siegfried said instructors have been provided with online guidance and support through step-by-step instructional guides, videos and checklists.

“So far we’ve had five live professional development sessions,” Siegfried said. “I think this will be a really good experience for the kids.”

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