Miami-Dade County

For school project, next stop is outer space

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho-(L) holds up a flight ready satellite built by students from David Lawrence Jr K-8, Alonso and Tracy Mourning High School and FIU as Mourning High senior Briana Hawryluk and University President Mark Rosenberg view the actual satellite before the Satellite Demo press conference on Friday November 21, 2014
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho-(L) holds up a flight ready satellite built by students from David Lawrence Jr K-8, Alonso and Tracy Mourning High School and FIU as Mourning High senior Briana Hawryluk and University President Mark Rosenberg view the actual satellite before the Satellite Demo press conference on Friday November 21, 2014 EL NUEVO HERALD

It looks like a green, high-tech coffee can with tape-measure arms and side solar panels. The contraption contains four separate circuit boards that will measure temperature, acceleration and magnetic fields.

It was designed by a team of students at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 School and Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School, and built by students at Florida International University.

And if all goes according to plan, it will be launched into space in mid-2015.

What started out as one volunteer parent’s passion turned into a two-and-a-half-year-long project that produced a fully functional satellite.

The project got started when John Escobar, a father of two at the K-8 school, and science teacher Laurie Futterman gathered students for the school’s first ever satellite lab.

“One day I saw this banner that said, ‘Sky is the limit,’ and I asked myself why the sky, why not space?” said Escobar, 42.

To help them complete the micro-satellite, Escobar and Futterman reached out to professor Shekhar Bhansali, chairman of the department of electrical and computer engineering at FIU.

On Friday, the triad satellite team unveiled their finished product, which they believe is the first satellite ever built entirely by students. FIU President Mark Rosenberg, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, and Amir Mirmiran, dean of the college of engineering and computing, joined other FIU faculty at the presentation.

“It’s something I didn’t expect to happen,” said Escobar of the finished product. “But it happened. I’m very glad to be part of it.”

The $8,500 price tag of the project is being covered by one of Escobar’s business colleagues at Optomize, Inc., a Weston company.

The plan is for it to be shot into space by a company called Interorbital, which recently launched a number of items, including a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD.

Over a course of 30 months, FIU students met with the younger kids to work on the endeavor. Hours of additional research, discussions and practice drills were required since none of the students had ever attempted to send something into space.

“I was in eighth grade when the project began,” said Ryan Chierico, 16, a sophomore at Mourning High. “I thought it was an awesome thing.”

The high school students were responsible for concept and basic construction. They were mainly focused on deciding what the satellite would be capable of doing.

“We wanted a camera on it. We wanted that to be one of the key features,” said Adam Lowinger, 17. “We also were involved in a little bit higher than basic construction, which is soldering of the circuit boards, which is relatively complex, actually.”

Soldering the circuit boards, the students said, is like working with hot glue, except that they were melting metal.

The final stages of the project were completed by 10 engineering students in their senior design classes. Collectively, they put more than 4,000 hours into the project working on electronic design and redesign, trials with radio communication, image processing and programming.

Rosenberg had heard about the project more than a year ago. When he got the invitation to see the finished project, he said, “Oh, my God, they actually got it done. It makes me feel great to see it’s actually coming together.”

Rosenberg added: “Here we have a path-breaking partnership, three levels of education, that shows that we match our words, commitments to collaboration, with our deeds, the actual on-the-ground collaboration between the two schools and FIU. So it’s pretty exciting.”

By the end of the project, 18 students at all levels had participated in building the prototype. The youngest member of the team was Escobar’s 12-year-old son, Johann, who was in fourth grade when the project began.

“They far exceeded what I expected of them,” said Escobar. “They did really complex research and I cannot say enough to describe how proud I am. It’s my little team.”

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