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Out-of-this-world STEM for middle schoolers

SPACE FACE—Students at the STEM Academy in Peoria Heights School District in Illinois chat live with former NASA astronaut and area resident Scott Altman.
SPACE FACE—Students at the STEM Academy in Peoria Heights School District in Illinois chat live with former NASA astronaut and area resident Scott Altman.

On July 2, 2018, at 10:35 a.m., 25 middle school students in the Peoria, Illinois area had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

The conversation took place during the weeklong summertime STEM Academy, which was launched three years ago by the Peoria Heights School District, the University of Illinois Extension, Pearl Technology and Richwoods Township.

Students built and programmed computers to stream the ISS’s live video feed and pinpoint its orbit location, says Dave Johnson, president of Pearl Technology, a local security and IT infrastructure company.


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With the ISS traveling about 17,000 mph and 250 miles above the school, the students calculated the five-minute window they had for amateur radio contact with Serena Auñón-Chancellor, an American physician, engineer and astronaut. The activity was also part of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program.

To provide more detail, Scott Altman, a former NASA astronaut and area native, answered student questions in a longer video chat, says Joe Stoner, Peoria’s assistant superintendent.


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Students also explored a virtual Mars environment created by Caterpillar to test construction technology and vehicles as part of NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge.

The middle schoolers used virtual reality goggles to perform tasks that an astronaut would be expected to conduct on Mars, such as collecting, weighing and washing samples. Other STEM experiments involved launching and tracking a high-altitude balloon.