New Program Teaches Coding With Satellite Experiments

October 27, 2016

Tiny CubeSats are deployed from the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA.

Every now and then, the International Space Station releases 10 x 10 cm cubes into low-Earth orbit. These nano-satellites are jammed with sensors, ranging from infrared detectors to accelerometers. Thanks to a grant from the NSF’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program, the Lawrence Hall of Science will pilot a program where students will get to use these satellites to design and run scientific experiments in space.

The Nano-satellites and East Bay Area Rocket Scientists (NEARS) program is a three-year partnership between the Hall and the Oakland charter school Civicorps. Using the same sensors and arduino boards that are present on the nano-satellites, students will program the sensors to collect data for scientific experiments of their own design. The focus of the experiments will be climate change and using the satellites’ sensors to collect data that is directly relevant to East Bay communities.

NEARS not only provides participants with the opportunity to learn coding and do real science, it hopes to create pathways to careers in STEM for underrepresented youth.

“We want people to believe in themselves and that they are capable of doing this,” says John Howarth, one of the investigators for the NEARS project. “We hope people will see STEM careers as a path that they can pursue.”

Students in the NEARS program will be working with sensor kits and tech from ArduSat.

Civicorps is a critical part of the career pathways aspect of the program. When it was granted a charter in 1995, Civicorps became the only high school drop-out recovery school in the Oakland Unified School District. Its mission is to reengage young adults, so they can earn a high school diploma, gain job skills, pursue college, and embark on family-sustaining careers. The NEARS program will introduce Civicorps students to computer programming skills that are in high demand in the current job market.

In addition to the course at Civicorps, NEARS will run a summer camp program at the Lawrence Hall of Science. For two weeks, high school students will design scientific investigations using sensors on Earth and on the nano-satellites. Because the program has been funded by a grant, the NEARS summer camp experience can offer full scholarships to camp attendees.

There will also be a NEARS afterschool program through the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists (EBAYS). This is a Hall program that provides students with well-structured, academically rigorous out-of-school learning opportunities. EBAYS students focus on problems of soil, water, and air quality within their communities and develop solutions using science.

Over three years, NEARS will offer intriguing STEM learning experiences to some 90 students. By positioning the content of the NEARS camps and classes “in space,” we invite students to literally look beyond the horizons of their classrooms and consider a larger world—one that they can know and explore. Such an invitation can provide an opportunity for students to see the world and their place within it differently than they had before.

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