To infinity and beyond: West Chicago students prepare to launch experiment into space

Published: Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 6:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Erica Benson-ebenson@shawmedia.com)
Wheaton Academy student Micah Switzer puts together the Nano Rack he and his team are working on for the International Space Station Program Thursday Sept. 19.

WEST CHICAGO – Not all teenagers can say they’ve launched something into space, but for a group of Wheaton Academy students, those bragging rights aren’t far out of reach.

The West Chicago high school started an International Space Station Program this year in partnership with other institutions, giving 10 of its students the opportunity to send an experiment into space to study how it is affected by the lack of strong gravitational pull.

“The objective here is through this program and the engineering that we started, we develop scientists and graduate students with a high caliber of engineering and science,” said Ali Atashroo, who is one of the International Space Station Program (ISS) mentors and director of the school’s new engineering course.

Wheaton Academy was accepted in May to join an existing partnership among Valley Christian High School in California, the Quest Institute for Quality Education and NanoRacks, which sends the experiments to the International Space Station.

As part of the program, students design a computer-controlled, self-contained experiment that begins when it reaches the space station. The experiment fits into a small box called a “MicroLab”

Hardware within the MicroLab records data from the experiment that Wheaton Academy will receive a few times each week, Atashroo said.

Academy students working on the project are divided into four sub-teams with unique responsibilities, ranging from planning, building or programming the experiment to providing support to the other three sub-teams.

Since ISS is an extracurricular program that meets twice each week after school, students will not be graded on their work, but many hope the program will help prepare them for their college studies and future careers.

“I think this will be an opportunity for me to explore,” said senior Kate Zhu, an international student from China who serves as the engineer on the sub-team charged with planning the experiment.

Sophomore Josh Sanders-Mud of South Elgin, who serves on the hardware interface sub-team building the experiment, looks forward to including this experience on his college applications and resume as he pursues a future in aerospace engineering.

“I’ve always had a long passion for engineering since I was a little kid,” Sanders-Mud said.

Two options students are considering for their experiment involve measuring the effects of microgravity on their plant or crystal growth.

A third option is to study how low gravity affects an accelerometer, which is a device that measures acceleration forces to determine how something is angled or moving.

Program participants were expected to decide on an experiment from those three options during a group meeting Sept. 25.

In the coming months, the team will build a prototype of its experiment, undergo project tests and reviews and build the final flight unit, which will be launched in early March.

Team members will receive data from their experiment throughout April and may travel to California to present their final report and findings after data analysis is complete.

Wheaton Academy hopes to continue the program in the future, helping the school keep up with increasing expectations, said science teacher and program mentor Kiernan Mack.

“My excitement is to see them use their gifts and abilities to the maximum and to understand how their faith works in the real world,” Mack said.

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