As a child, Kiman McIntosh suspected the moon was made out of cheese, and he dreamed of launching himself into space to find out for sure.
While Kiman, 14, may not be able to take a bite out of the moon, his childhood dreams of space exploration are not entirely out of reach.
Students in the Geospatial Information Systems academy at iTech at Thomas A. Edison Educational Center in Miami, a magnet high school that just launched this year, can soon explore outer space from their classrooms. These students are learning the basics of coding and computer programming to build small, cube-shaped satellites that will be launched into low Earth orbit by astronauts on the International Space Station. Sensors inside the satellites’ payload connect students to the universe by taking pictures and collecting data about the earth’s composition, temperature, weather and light.
Ardusat, an education technology company based in Utah, provides the satellite kits, online resources and curriculum for teachers to incorporate in their classrooms.
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The satellite kits include a microcontroller, a small computer on a circuit that contains processing, programming and memory capabilities, and a variety of sensors — from Geiger counters to temperature and ultraviolet light sensors — to collect data about the earth from space.
Using these sensors, students can study warming trends, map and predict thunderstorms and measure levels of radiation over certain areas of the earth’s surface. Students decide the type of information they want the satellite to collect and receive online reports from Ardusat’s Mission Control.
Sunny Washington, president of Ardusat, hopes these projects will interest and encourage kids to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields.
“Many people consider it boring and mundane. Not enough kids are graduating with STEM degrees, and we need them to,” Washington said. “We’re trying to leverage the tools and technology that makes STEM engaging.”
Washington also wants to engage teachers. She said it could be intimidating to incorporate a program like Ardusat in schools because it strays from the more traditional lesson plans and homework handouts. She doesn’t want to replace curriculum in schools, but give classrooms a high-tech edge with piecemealed and modularized lesson plans and educational support.
“We want to to remove as many barriers as possible and provide as many support materials as possible,” Washington said.
Sean Gallagan, principal at iTech, was not discouraged by the potential challenges of a curriculum that uses more than computers in the classroom.
“We are a tech school,” Gallagan said. “Technology is natural to us and we take on those challenges. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. We learn from them, move on and make it better.”
Isabel Hernandez, lead teacher for the geospatial information systems academy at iTech, uses Ardusat’s resources and learning tools in the classroom. In late September, her 29 freshmen were reading instructions and tinkering with the codes and wires to make a small LED light blink. This LED light helps the students familiarize themselves with the sensor controls.
Since then, they have moved on to learning about weather and are working on a temperature sensor project that requires coding the microcontroller to test the temperature inside and outside the classroom.
Hernandez and her students are excited to use this technology in the classroom.
“They’re here an hour before school starts to plug it in and work on it just out of curiosity,” Hernandez said. “They bring in their personal laptops to work before and after school.”
This motivation and excitement is what Gallagan wanted to see in his students when he reached out to Ardusat get their learning tools in the school.
“I wanted to have this for my students, and it was an easy sell for them,” he said. “You tell them we’re working on something that’s gonna go in space and everyone wants to do it.”
After figuring out how to make the LED light blink, Jose Realegeño, 15, looked for ways to dim the light.
“Just to do something different,” he said.
Rachel Pinchanet, 15, attended a middle school she said had almost no technology available for students. Being in a classroom with a 3-D printer, wall-to-wall computers and small satellites to build was a significant change for her. She said she loves being in a class that teaches her so much at such a young age and that allows her to decide what she wants to do with her class projects.
“The best part about this school is we’re the students and the teachers,” Rachel said. “It makes me feel like an adult.”
The students are already thinking of the data they want their satellites to collect. Rachel and Jose want to learn more about the earth’s weather patterns. Kiman is interested in the software that goes into navigation systems and hopes to use his knowledge of coding to create an app in the future.
Coding has been the biggest challenge for the students, but they take their lessons seriously and try not to get discouraged.
“I’m so excited, and I’m learning with them. It’s new to me, too,” Hernandez said. “We’re running into walls together, and their motivation is there.”
Tiekeria Livingston, 14, is excited for her future and for the doors that will open because of everything she’s learning in class this year.
“It’s a privilege. Not all kids get this opportunity,” Livingston said. “When I leave this school, I’m going to be better than when I came in.”