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Mission accomplished: students design spacecraft

NASA engineers give input on student projects

Kentwood First- through fifth-graders at Bowen and Endeavor elementary schools recently completed out-of-this-world missions.

Their tasks, sent from NASA itself, were to develop devices to safely transport two astronauts landing on Mars, or to slow down spacecraft landing on the red planet. 

Bowen fifth-grader Simon Ling shows his device, created to help astronauts land safely on Mars

“They wanted us to design a model for NASA astronauts to have a safe landing when they return to Earth,” said Bowen fifth-grader Simon Ling as he held up his model, which had a latching door and parachute. “I learned about how to keep you safe and have a safe landing.”

The 33 students worked in groups using an engineering design process — identify the problem, research, plan, test and improve — to create model crafts that could perform the missions. They used cardboard, balloons, string, Styrofoam and other materials to build their crafts during the after-school ARCH program, a four-day-a-week, two-hour period that focuses on academics including STEM enrichment.

Tweaking their designs was done in consultation with real NASA engineers, whom students met through video chat during the research phase and to show their final designs. Bowen students had one meeting with an engineer who lives in Dallas, Texas, and Endeavor students met twice with two engineers who live in Ohio.

Students went through engineering design projects to create their own

Space and STEM

Bowen and Endeavor ARCH programs were selected by the You for Youth program to participate in the engineering challenges. 

NASA, with the U.S. Department of Education, developed seven unique STEM design challenges for elementary and middle-school students. Each STEM challenge is based upon real mission data and experiences that occur during human and robotic exploration of the solar system, according to the program’s website. 

From left, William ‘BJ’ Burress, Sofia Karki and Adut Anaii test their spacecraft device

Part of the program is connecting students with NASA scientists and engineers to discuss proposed solutions to design challenges.  

“It was a great opportunity for our (students) to get out and talk to actual engineers,” said Daniel Mutz, Bowen ARCH site coordinator… “They got to engage and learn new topics. It was very nice to get outside of the city of Kentwood and interact and meet new people.

Endeavor fourth-graders Adut Anai and Robert Bolden talked about “drag,” and why it’s needed to slow down a spacecraft landing on Mars at a speed of 13,000 miles per hour in just seven minutes.

“We were trying to drag devices to slow down our cargo bed,” Adut explained, describing how their design required connecting the cargo to balloons with string.

Mariah Walker, Endeavor ARCH site coordinator, said the curriculum “is really focused on problem solving and improving the design you create, so there are lots of opportunities for students to work in the research they had done and solve those problems.”  

The ARCH groups will submit brief videos showcasing their work. U.S. Department of Education leaders and NASA scientists and engineers will then select videos to highlight in a culminating live web event or to showcase in other ways.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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