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NASA engages young kids in STEM through national competition

Posted at 7:41 PM, Feb 16, 2023

Many dream of becoming an astronaut when they grow up, and some students across the country are already getting involved in NASA space missions.

The U.S. space agency selected 60 groups of middle and high schoolers in a national competition to participate in a high-altitude balloon science experiment. The competition is called the NASA TechRise Student Challenge.

One of the 60 finalists is a group of 7th graders at the STEM Lab. They are known as a shy bunch, but confident.

"Our team has the brains to win," said Britanta Shrestha, a 7th grade student.

They're also creative.

"We came up with this idea that since NASA is doing their Artemis missions which is involves going to the moon and setting up colonies there. We came with this crazy idea of, like, if people are living there in the near future, how would they get Amazon packages?" said 7th grader Ray Mahajan.

NASA Flight Opportunities program manager Danielle McCulloch says the challenge was initiated by NASA's desire to get students engaged in STEM at a young age.

"The NASA TechRise Student Challenge is a hands-on STEM experience for students in grades six through 12, and it allows students to go through exactly the same process of coming up with an idea, developing a payload and doing a flight test that NASA researchers would do in a similar situation," McCulloch said. "Their creative approach and their ability to think about things a little bit differently is really important to us."

Jess Noffsinger is an engineering teacher who leads the STEM Lab.

"You never expect the solutions that students come up with. When you have adults try to solve any problem, you get the list of things you can't do. 'Oh, we can't do that, we can't do that, we can't do that," said Noffsinger.

"With kids, they're always like, 'well, what if we could do this?'" he said.

You may laugh at the idea of shipping Amazon packages, but Noffsinger says they're helping to solve real-world problems.

"So they were really able to tie it to like, we're going to have to ship things back and forth to the moon, and it can't be like now where it's thousands of dollars for every they every pound you send up to space," said Noffsinger.

"Ultimately we're testing how different packaging materials react and shield radiation," said Mahajan.

They'll get to test it in an actual NASA launch of a high-altitude balloon that will go into the stratosphere, float for three hours, and come back down.

Both Noffsinger and McCulloch say student projects like these help young people know they can do STEM careers.

"Students may not think that they're good at math or science based on what's presented to them in the classroom," McCulloch said. "But when they have a project like this, they just flourish and really excel."

"I think the biggest thing schools could do with their students is to trust them to solve important problems and to engage in real work," said Noffsinger.

"So often we're like, 'oh, you can do the cool stuff when you're older, once you've had these advanced classes, you can do these amazing things.' They can do amazing things when they're five, or as 7th graders," he said.