MIDDLETOWN — During recent years, a shifting focus on science and math education in the U.S. has meant a surge of new programs and educational opportunities available to elementary and middle school students. In Rhode Island, where the term STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) education has become commonplace among many educators, younger generations are working with everything from iPads to LEGOs in the classroom, all in the pursuit of groundbreaking technology.
However, this spring, a Rhode Island Catholic school will mark a new milestone in the state’s science education programs. In May, All Saints Academy will become the first school in Rhode Island — and one of only six schools in the country — to make contact with the International Space Station.
“I’m thrilled beyond belief that the school is able to do this,” said Principal Anita Brouse during an interview at the school. “When I heard that we were going to do it, I thought to myself, what a tremendous benefit that the children could see all this in their learning. They’ll remember being able to talk to the astronauts in space.”
The school was chosen from approximately 6,000 applicants worldwide to participate in Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, an international educational initiative that arranges scheduled ham radio communications between educational organizations and astronauts aboard the ISS. Other recent contacts include schools in Nepal, Italy, the United Kingdom and, closer to home, Frederick W. Hartnett Middle School in Blackstone, Mass.
“I think it’s great that we are the first school in Rhode Island to speak with the International Space Station,” said Paula Peréz, an eighth-grader and member of the school’s ham radio club, which will lead the student body in the historic encounter. “It’s a one of a kind opportunity for such a small state.”
Members of the ham radio club will assist club moderator Kevin Cullen and other volunteers with preparation for the contact, setting up an antenna on the school’s roof and taking the microphone on the day of the event. Cullen, a parent volunteer, said the students’ interest in ham radio developed out of another extracurricular activity, the CyberPatriot cyber security competition, when students learned how ham radio can be used to communicate during times of crisis, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
“We started by learning the basics of ham radio and studied for six months to get technician class licenses,” said Peréz. “From there we went into different things ham radio could be used for.”
The students regularly use ham radio to contact students in other parts of the world, picking up signals from countries as far away as Belgium, Germany and Kuwait. Last spring, Cullen began looking into the possibility of making contact with the ISS. He enlisted the help of local radio experts, including WADK radio station and the Newport County Radio Club, to approve the school’s technology plan and provide day-of assistance. Once the school was notified of their acceptance in the program, Cullen and the students began assembling the antenna and wiring system on the school’s roof that will allow their voices to be picked up by the satellite circling several hundred miles overhead.
“We set it up in the middle of the snow. We had to go out there in our snow boots and snow pants to set up the antenna,” explained Nils Schmid, another ham radio club member.
On the day of the event, students from the ham radio club will use a radio located in the school auditorium to broadcast a signal to the space station, identifying themselves by the school’s call sign, NIASA. If the call is successful, the students will have between 10 and 14 minutes to speak with astronauts aboard the station, most likely American astronaut Tim Kopra and British astronaut Tim Peake.
There are many things that can go wrong with a call to outer space due to weather and other unaccountable factors. As part of their preparation, students learn to minimize these risks and plan for interference.
“We started talking about the technicalities of it,” said Peréz. “What if a seagull flies overhead if we were broadcasting? It could kill the seagull.”
“We also talked about protection in lightning storms,” added Schmid. “The copper wire went right down to the ground in case lightning strikes it.”
There are also the forms of interference completely out of the students’ control, the ones the space station encounters every day during its orbit of earth. As the students learned in their classes, the ISS must constantly adjust its path to avoid colliding with man-made space debris resulting from several decades of space exploration and satellite use. This uncertain itinerary is part of the reason All Saints Academy has been given a broad, two-week window for their contact with the station.
“We can’t nail down the date because we have to make these orbital adjustments to avoid space trash,” explained Cullen. The school will be notified of a day and time as they approach the event.
For now, the students and teachers of All Saints Academy prepare by integrating lessons about space into the regular curriculum, a requirement of their participation in the ISS program. While the applications to math and science are numerous, students also learn about stewardship of creation with regard to outer space in religion class and prepare historical presentations on the space race for their upcoming “Night at the Museum” social studies project.
“There are so many pieces — not only faith and technology, but also the miracle of being able to send our voice into the heavens and have people answer back,” said Brouse.
In the coming weeks, the school plans to host a question contest open to all elementary and middle school students in the state. Winners of the question contest will be invited to join All Saints Academy on the day of the call as ham radio club members ask ISS astronauts the 10 winning questions. Brouse said she hopes the experience of All Saints Academy and the larger community involvement will inspire other schools to pursue similar programs.
“This is what STEAM education is all about,” she said. “Getting other kids to say, ‘Why not?’”