Nearly 170 middle schoolers converged on University of New Orleans’ campus Nov. 17 with their eyes toward space.
During UNO’s second annual Space Day event, teens from six local schools heard from and interacted with NASA experts, UNO scientists and engineers and other leaders in science, technology and math as they tackled a series of challenges designed to inspire them to consider STEM studies.
Kim Jovanovich, assistant dean of the College of Engineering—who helped plan the event with Karen Thomas, associate dean of STEM outreach, recruitment, and retention in the College of Sciences—told the students that organizers aim to plant a seed “that is going to grow inside you in such a way that it is going to motivate you to be the scientists, the engineer, the mathematicians and the technologist that is inside of you already.”
“Take a look at the person sitting next to you and realize that that person sitting next to you may be one of the inhabitants of the planet Mars,” Jovanovich said. “Or they could be the individual who discovers a universal cure for cancer. Or they may be the person that builds a robot that will explore the first star. And that doesn’t come without hard work.”
Participating seventh- and eighth-graders came from Holy Cross High School, St. Augustine High School, Archbishop Rummel High School, Edward Hynes Charter School, Mount Carmel Academy and Eleanor McMain Secondary School.
They met and heard from NASA’s Patrick Whipps, resident manager of the Stages Element Space Launch System at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility.
They received hugs, cheers and NASA pins from Renee Horton, the lead metallic and weld engineer for NASA’s Space Launch System at Michoud. Horton, the first in her family to receive a doctorate and the first African-American to receive her Ph.D. in material science and physics from the University of Alabama, told students that while a hearing impairment kept her from becoming an astronaut, she knew that she could be a part of helping send astronauts to space.
“How many of you were aware, before today, that we are building the largest rocket in the world in New Orleans?” Horton said. “If that doesn’t motivate you to want to be a part of history, you’ve missed what they brought to you today. When you leave here, you should want to know, how do you put your mark on history? And I would be honored if your mark on history…would be in space.”
The students competed in hands-on challenges that required them to work in teams. They had to build rockets from paper tape and PVC pipe and compete to see whose would travel the farthest distance. They had to design towers using uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows, with the winners of the contest having the tallest structure. They struggled to create balloon propulsion devices using straws and tapes that would travel horizontally across down a string the length of a room without deflating before reaching a make-believe “docking station.”
Kayla Carey, a seventh-grader from Hynes who said she hopes to be a chemist, learned from failure during the spaghetti tower challenged—and liked that. “My foundation fell down the first time but I built it again and it was better and stronger,” she said. “I had a great experience.”
This was the second year Hynes science teacher Allyson McKinney brought her students to the event. She said the ‘try-try-again’ process is part of what she enjoys seeing: “You can really see them think after the first failure: ‘Why did it fail and how can I make it better?’
Schools who won the challenges were as follows: Space Day poster contest, Mount Carmel Academy; Planetary Structure Build (spaghetti towers), Eleanor McMain Secondary School; Stomp Rockets, Holy Cross High School; Space Docking Simulator (balloon propulsion): Hynes Charter School.
The day was a bit too windy for the students to launch their own rockets. But the students enjoyed watching the event’s finale. Kevin Stokes, professor and physics chair, joined senior physics major Britt Aguda as they used a bottle of liquid nitrogen to explode a giant trash can filled with hundreds of ping pong balls, sending white balls screaming across the lawn to the students' delight.
Jackson Dennies, an eighth-grader at Rummel, said he was leaving Space Day with a new career ambition: astronaut.
Jovanovich said that’s the idea: “You can’t wait until eleventh grade to get kids excited about going to university. This is the technology future of the United States. We have to invest now in these young people.”
The day’s events were made possible thanks to the UNO College of Science, College of Engineering, NASA, The Boeing Company and The National Center for Advanced Manufacturing.