STEM Launch 6th Graders Tackle Problem Of Space Debris

Cohen, Connor, Cameron and Javion created "The Tadpole," a fish-shaped spacecraft that collects space debris in the mouth and stores it in the body. Image Credit: Colorado Space News

Cohen, Connor, Cameron and Javion created “The Tadpole,” a fish-shaped spacecraft that collects space debris in the mouth and stores it in the body. Image Credit: Colorado Space News

May 25, 2016 – STEM Launch 6th graders presented solutions to the real-world problem of space debris as a capstone to their Space unit on Thursday, May 19. The challenge was to design a prototype spacecraft that would remove debris and ensure that astronauts and expensive equipment are safe in space. Students presented their solutions to engineers and scientists from the aerospace industry, who critiqued the projects.

In technology-integrated classrooms, students presented in groups of 3 or 4 using laptop computers to convey debris statistics, modeling and sources. Their well-thought out solutions included cameras, sensors, solar arrays, electromagnets and lasers.

“Did you know there are more than 500,000 pieces of debris traveling around in space,” students asked. “And they’re traveling at speeds up to 17,500 mph!”

Students cited examples of damage that debris could cause, including damage to the International Space Station, satellites, and to the astronauts themselves.

Anessa, Sienna, Kim and Isac presented a detailed budget plan that included materials and engineer and scientist salaries. Image Credit: Colorado Space News

Anessa, Sienna, Kim and Isac presented a detailed budget plan that included materials and engineer and scientist salaries. Image Credit: Colorado Space News

Engineers and scientists traveled from group-to-group to listen and give feedback on presentation skills, creativity and viability of the solutions. Judges from Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace, Space Sci Engineering, Barber-Nichols, Metropolitan State University, Sierra Nevada Corporation, the University of Colorado and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science shared real experiences and pushed students’ thinking to the next level.

Image Credit: Colorado Space News

Image Credit: Colorado Space News

STEM Launch is a K-8 school in Adams 12 School District. It’s unique because it’s a Title I school (a high poverty designation) and also has a high English language learner population. At the Middle School level, about 81% of the students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch and nearly 58% of the students are English language learners (ELL).

With such a diverse group of learners, STEM Launch places a lot of emphasis on meeting individual students’ needs. Teachers identify goals and strategies specifically designed for each student and ensure that the appropriate academic and social/emotional support is in place to meet those needs. They and their sister school. STEM Lab, have been charged with building a new generation of problem solvers who will attend STEM school from K-12 and enter into STEM careers.

“Our students engage in problem based learning (PBL) – we introduce them to real world problems and students create solutions,” said Miss Ruud, a sixth grade math and science teacher. She explained that she has a friend in the aerospace industry who talked about the issue of space debris and Ruud thought it would make an interesting PBL. In the past, students have tackled everything from lemonade stands to heart valve design and have started their own businesses.

“One student had a pen pal in Africa and heard that there weren’t enough school supplies. So he started collecting scraps of metal that he could recycle to buy supplies,” said Ruud. With the help of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, he now has a trailer to work from and has made this a year-round project. He also had the opportunity to travel to Africa to meet his friend in person and see the difference he is making.

STEM Launch leverages support from the local business community. The school has established partnerships with more than 200 private companies and universities to bring authentic experiences into the classroom. Industry partners serve as mentors and guest speakers and bring relevance to students’ work. Nothing empowers young people more than direct feedback from adults working on the same problem! Students also have the opportunity to participate in field experiences to industry partners and to colleges and university in order to immerse themselves in the actual setting. STEM Launch believes in the shared responsibility of all stakeholders to prepare students for the future.

And it’s not all about finding the perfect solution – the focus is on the problem-solving process itself. Failure is encouraged so that students build confidence and improve over time. The result is learning that is fun, student-driven and effective.