Students create astronaut gear in NASA program

Students create astronaut gear in NASA program

HUNCH, a NASA-funded program, partners space agency scientists with high schools and middle schools
HUNCH students from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham took their project involving the effect of zero gravity on the spine on the low-gravity plane in Houston last April.

Astronaut gear made by high school students in a NASA program will be sent up to the International Space Station in June. It will be the first student projects to be sent to the station during the program’s 10 years of operation.

These students are part of “High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware,” or HUNCH, a NASA-funded program that partners space agency scientists with high schools and middle schools. Students use STEM skills in drafting, electronics, and computer programming to conduct experiments and create training tools—such as stowage lockers and cargo transfer bags—to help prepare astronauts for life on the space station.

The program was created in 2003, when NASA HUNCH program manager Stacy Hale saw an opportunity to give STEM students a chance to work with NASA. Each school gets $2,000 for materials, and students who build training hardware are treated like NASA employees. The agency gets the equipment at a lower cost than what would be charged by outside contractors.

The program has grown from three schools in 2003 to about 45 schools in 10 states this year. The aim is to inspire students to pursue STEM careers, says Florence Gold, a HUNCH project manager. “It’s amazing what high school kids can accomplish when they realize they can do something,” Gold says. “Student ownership in a real-world project makes all the difference.”

To join HUNCH, schools submit a project proposal that includes information about class equipment and how the task will be integrated into the curriculum. Students work on the projects throughout the school year as part of STEM courses, and NASA mentors visit the classroom or video chat to monitor progress.

Many projects are designed for classes that are equipped for welding or electronic, wood, plastic, or metal fabrication. Other students have edited space station video for NASA websites.

Twelve schools with advanced STEM curriculum participate in a branch of the project called HUNCH Extreme Science, created in 2009. These students develop complex experiments that can operate in weak gravity and potentially go up to the space station.

HUNCH Extreme Science students don’t just design experiments—they test them on a zero-gravity plane based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston each April to see if they are suitable for space. NASA engineers fly students in a parabola pattern over the Gulf of Mexico, which allows them to experience different levels of gravity and assess their projects in space station conditions.

Three Extreme Science products were selected last spring by a group of NASA scientists to be sent up to the International Space Station. One product—algae grown in a gel-like solution that will be a source of oxygen on the space station—was created by students from Billings Central Catholic High School in Billings, Mont. In the other two projects, students from Clear Springs High School in League City, Texas, and Lakewood High School in Lakewood, Colo., created different types of plant chambers that make it possible to grow greens in zero gravity.

The New Horizons Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va., became part of the HUNCH Extreme Science program this year. One class is working on artificial photosynthesis to grow plants in space. After students design a three-dimensional prototype of the structure, NASA engineers will build it with real metals and materials. Four students will travel to Houston this April to test the project on the zero-gravity plane.

New Horizons integrated the NASA project into physics and engineering curriculum to give students more hands-on learning opportunities. “You can see the engagement light bulb turn on whenever students get to do things in connection to the real world,” says Rhett Woo, a physics teacher at New Horizons. “The key for the STEM field is that there is a connection between the books and what they are actually doing.”

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