Local students compete for slots in high-tech aerospace residency

January 31, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

One memorable assignment so far was designing a space shuttle, according to Spencer Schiefelbein.

“I really like my robot,” Alison Chiu said.

Both age 16 and juniors at Skyline High School, Schiefelbein and Chiu are just two of five Issaquah School District students taking part in this year’s Washington Aerospace Scholars program. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, they hope to take part in the program scheduled for this summer at The Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Starting near the end of December, students accepted into the first round of the program have been completing essay, math and graphics projects every other week, said Melissa Edwards, WAS director.

The program invites students who score well on those assignments to take part in the summer residency at The Museum of Flight. Guided by professional engineers and educators, residency students will help design a human mission to Mars. According to a press release, the qualifying curriculum was designed by NASA and consists of 10 lessons and a final project.

For the space shuttle project, students had some choices to make, such as the destination for their machine. Schiefelbein picked the International Space Station. Students did a lot of reading prior to setting some specifications for their own shuttle and didn’t have to start from scratch. Still, Schiefelbein said the assignment was worthwhile.

“You get a feel for design,” he said.

The current assignment revolves around student-designed robots, according to Chiu. She said there are no set designs or stipulations.

“I think imagination is important here,” she said.

Chiu wants her robot to work outside the International Space Station while the astronaut controlling it stays inside.

Another assignment that got Chiu’s attention was about spin-off technology. For example, NASA initially developed the technology that went into sunglasses that block UV rays. The current assignment is the fourth, Schiefelbein said. Both he and Chiu said the reading assignments probably take the longest. Students were split on the difficulty of the math problems. Skyline’s Alex Liu said one problem was easy once he figured out to discard a bunch of superfluous information presented as part of the problem.

“It was just working smart,” was how he described his approach to the problem. Like the others, he hopes to go into engineering or some closely related field.

To get involved in the first portion of the WAS program, students fill out an application and complete an essay about why they want to be involved.

“I heard about it in ninth grade,” Chiu said of the program. “I thought it was interesting.”

Looking toward the future, Chiu expressed an interest in bioengineering. Schiefelbein hopes to gain a doctoral degree in astrophysics.

“I’ve always been interested in space and science,” he said. “I want to push the boundaries of what we know.”

As you might expect, one stated goal of the WAS program is to address the perceived lack of college students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM programs.

“Because Washington and the Northwest are central to so many high technology businesses and educational centers, it is hoped that this program will help to provide a solution to a much larger national imperative,” former NASA astronaut and space shuttle pilot Bonnie Dunbar said in a WAS press release. Dunbar serves on the board of directors for the WAS Foundation.

Since 2006, some 1,400 juniors from across Washington have taken part in the phase one qualifying curriculum. Of those, about 700 completed summer residencies at The Museum of Flight. The program is free to participants. Edwards said there are 160 slots open in the residency program this year.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.


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