Space exploration usually makes for intriguing and exciting STEM curriculum. Reading and wondering about what’s far above our heads can be, well, heady stuff. But actually completing a class project that sends a payload into space – that’s way out of our reach, right? Not so for one Virginia teacher and her students.

They participated in a program called ThinSat, and after completing the work some in the group will be present to see their payload of data sensors launched on a rocket in April. Now that’s really out there! How did they do it? To find out, we contacted the teacher, Jane Carter, who gave us the nuts and bolts, so to speak. We also reached out to one of Jane’s students who worked on the project, Spencer Boggs, who shared a bit of his experiences as well (click here to jump to Spencer’s interview) . But first, Jane:

Q: Tell us about your background in education and science and your current teaching positions.

A: I am currently in my 20th year of teaching. I worked in the aerospace industry for about eight years before entering the teaching profession. My educational background includes a Bachelor of Science in chemistry (Emory and Henry College) and a Master of Science in environmental science (East Tennessee State University). I am currently taking master’s level chemistry courses through Bluefield College.

My love is chemistry and challenging students to think, question things and then look outside the normal “box” for answers. I currently teach in Wise County, Virginia. My assignments are high school chemistry as well as environmental science for Eastside High School, and I serve as STEM coordinator for St. Paul Elementary School (a preK-8 school).

Q: How did you hear about the ThinSat Program, and why did you choose to participate? What was the cost, and how did you fund it?

A: In addition to my love for chemistry, I love all things space related. I have always looked for programs for the students and myself to participate in. Through another program I participated in several years ago I met Jack Kennedy. Jack is the Wise County Clerk of Circuit Court and shares a deep love for all things space related.

It was through Jack and additional introductions that he made for me that we became involved in the ThinSat Program. Jack was serving on the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, also known as Virginia Space, and has a lot of connections within the space industry. A personal goal of Jack’s is to inspire and see our area students involved in space exploration, particularly through PocketQubes (miniaturized satellites for space research).

As an educator, I know how important it is to challenge our students and inspire them to look beyond the standards. The ThinSat Program offers them all of that and so many other opportunities. So, with Jack’s assistance, we are participating in this program.

The ThinSat Program falls under the leadership and guidance of Virginia Space, and it has funded our hardware and flight costs (initial costs of $20,000 per team were stated). We are using local donations as well as fundraising to cover the costs for the students to attend the launch in April.

For this initial mission, there are nine teams that fall under the leadership of Wise County, and I serve as the lead mentor for the group (as well as serving as the individual mentor for the St. Paul Elementary School and Eastside High School teams). The other seven teams are L.F. Addington Middle School, Union Primary School, Coeburn Middle School, John I. Burton High School, Lebanon High School, Bland County High School and Washington County Homeschool team.

Q: Describe the ThinSat Program and its three phases. What did your student group do for each phase?

A: Phase 1: This involves exploring the atmosphere closest to us – on the surface of the Earth as well as several feet above us – through the use of XinaBox sensors (https://xinabox.cc/). Initially students learn about the different sensors (weather and light) and the different types of data they can obtain from the sensors along with the setup and operation of the sensors. Operation includes some programming as well as understanding how the Internet of Things is used to make the data accessible through a Space Data Dashboard (SDD).

This phase of the program allows students to collect data within the classroom, outside and even at very low altitudes when transporting the sensors by helium balloons or a drone. The students evaluate the data through the use of the SDD. One of the really neat things is, they can also see other teams’ data. There is also the option to download the data. These data sets can be extremely large, offering students an opportunity to look at analysis of large data sheets – another important science skill.

Phase 2: A continuation of Phase 1 with an increase in the altitude for the sampling area. The students set up what is referred to as the “engineering model,” which contains the sensors. Students verified that it was transmitting data, and then it was sent to Indiana where it was flown on a high-altitude weather balloon (100,000-120,000 feet). The data was again transmitted through the SDD.

Phase 3: This will involve a similar engineering model called a ThinSat that will again increase in altitude. It will be integrated into the Antares rocket that will be carrying the Cygnus that resupplies the International Space Station. The rocket is scheduled to launch on April 17, 2019, from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility (Wallops Island, Virginia) as part of the NG-11 mission. Current plans are for several members from each of the student teams to travel to Wallops to watch the rocket launch and then begin to monitor the data being transmitted by their ThinSat.

The ThinSats will be released during the rocket’s second-stage separation and will orbit the Earth in an area referred to as extreme low Earth orbit, approximately 250 kilometers high. The ThinSats will orbit the Earth transmitting data for approximately five days before burning as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The students will track their ThinSat’s location and monitor data through the SDD.

Q: What lessons have you learned from working on this program? Would you recommend it to other teachers? If so, how can other student groups get involved?

A: This has been the inaugural mission for ThinSats so there has been and continues to be a lot of lessons learned. This has been important for the students as it has helped them to understand that everything does not always go as planned. Our original launch data was aboard mission NG-10 in November 2018 but was moved to NG-11 because of issues within the International Space Station resupply program.

This program is not a “standard” class activity – it is based upon real-life space science and is constantly fluctuating.

Yes, I would recommend the program. We are currently involved in the next round – ThinSat 2.0. Five of the nine original teams (Eastside High School, St. Paul Elementary, L.F. Addington Middle, Bland High and John I. Burton High School) elected to continue, and three new teams (Ridgeview High School, Northwood Middle School and Lee County Career and Technical Center) are joining us.

Regan Smith is the ThinSat Program project manager for Virginia Space and can be reached at regan.smith@vaspace.org for information about participating in future missions.

Q: Can you recommend any other space-related programs or projects that you have tried?

A: I have also participated in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (http://ssep.ncesse.org/) and Cubes in Space (http://www.cubesinspace.com/). Also, NASA has a lot of great educational programs and activities for teachers.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about your participation in the ThinSat program?

A: Attached is a PowerPoint presentation that includes photos, a screenshot of the Space Data Dashboard as well as other graphics and information. Feel free to use any of the photos or information in it. I have photo permission from all students involved.

Student Interview

Q: Tell us about yourself: your family, where you live, your grade level and your interests.

A: My name is Spencer Boggs, son of Jeffery and Donna Boggs. We live on the border between Dickenson and Wise counties in far western Virginia.

I am a senior at Eastside High School in Coeburn. I plan to become a chemical engineer with a minor in music performance. My hobbies include blacksmithing and woodworking.

Q: How did you become involved in the ThinSat project? What did you and your fellow students do to participate? Describe the process.

A: I became involved in the ThinSat program after my teacher, Jane Carter, came up to me and a friend and described what was happening. We were instantly intrigued and soon became wrapped up in the satellites and their many functions and parts.

I focused more on the parts aspect and keeping the organization aspects in line. I assembled the satellites and taught the younger members how to put together the tiny modules.

Q: Did you come up against challenges? How did you overcome them, and what did you learn from them and from participating in the effort as a whole?

A: At first we faced many challenges, most of which had to do with the computer aspect of the program. We would log our observations of the different modules and would report any problems to Virginia Space and others.

I learned that I was really influencing how this project would turn out and that we had to work as a team to solve the issues.

Q: Will you be at the launch? Will you be receiving data from the satellite after the launch, and what will you do with the data?

A: I will be at the launch and will be allowed into the control booth to see the live data coming in from the satellites and will assess and make observations to gather data on the mesosphere (atmospheric layer above the stratosphere).

Q: Would you participate in a project like this again? What was the best part? Would you recommend it to others? What would you change about it?

A: I have really enjoyed this experience, being able to tinker with the tiny parts and get to see them launch into the atmosphere. I really liked the mechanics behind it all and building satellites and testing their range and durability capabilities.

I would most certainly recommend this experience to anyone who is up for a scientific challenge and likes to think. I do wish I could personally have devoted much more time than I did to outline and streamline the process for our team.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about this experience?

A: I am really excited to see all of the team’s hard work pay off and blast out of this atmosphere!

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