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Space scholars

Pretend that you’re a 2019 high school student, a constant balancing act of studying, tests, extracurricular activities, family and a social life.

Now imagine that, suddenly, you’re also tasked with several months of additional studying that goes beyond the typical read-retain-test-repeat mantra; a curriculum that involves projects such as designing a moon base or the latest rover to trundle across Mars.

It’s an actual commitment seven North Medford High School students — five girls, two boys — are taking on. The Western Aerospace Scholars program, sponsored by The Museum of Flight in Seattle, is an online STEM learning course where students tackle college-level classes over several months. This year’s study focuses include the moon, Mars, the search for life beyond Earth, mission planning, and the history of NASA.

“Each module has a reading and a quiz at the end of it, and then there’s a variety of assignments,” says 16-year-old junior Sarah Grussenmeyer. “We get essays every module, and they need to be at least 750 words.”

Some projects also are tossed into the mix. The course, which began in November, runs until late March 2020. Students who turn in all the work and pass the course get to take part in a weeklong residency program at Garmin Industries, where they will work with industry professionals, scientists and educators. Students can also get college credit, and course completion doesn’t look too bad on a resume either.

“The students are definitely extending themselves into new territory,” says Stacy Harbour-Van Hoy, Seattle Museum of Flight associate director of digital learning and WAS director. “Though they might have some exposure to these topics in space science in high school, what we’re giving them is an Earth and space science course that’s a university-level course. So this is a class that you could sign up for at a place like the University of Washington as an undergraduate science class. So we’re not watering it down for them in any way. We’re really just throwing them into that immersive space science course, and they’re doing that on top of all their regular course work.”

Originally just a Washington state program called Washington Space Scholars, it since has expanded to include Oregon and Montana, thanks to new grant funding from the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline. It originally began in about 2005, a branch of a larger program out of Johnson Space Center in Texas. Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, a previous Seattle Museum of Flight director, had seen the program in action and brought it back to Washington, Harbour-Van Hoy says.

North Medford astronomy teacher Robert Black helped run 2018’s sophomore camp and wanted to get some of his pupils involved. Two months ago he told his students about the program and encouraged them to apply. Down the road, a successful completion could mean an advantage when applying for aerospace careers, he says.

“It’s the background information,” Black says. “It’s the knowledge you need to actually build a robot, to actually design a base, to actually be a part of the aerospace industry. You’ve got to know what it’s like on the moon compared to Mars. If you don’t know the basics, you’re not going to be a good engineer.”

So far, so good. Maybe better than good.

Junior Tara Phillis, 17, designed a moon base that, by all appearances, looks like it belongs on the cover of a NASA orientation manual for the agency’s upcoming Artemis moon program. Her pencil drawing shows space for crew quarters, a medical ward, communications, a power supply, greenhouse, and repair shop. Imagine a three-dimensional lower case “T” made up of interlocking sections.

“I had the idea of using different modules or capsules to put on the moon that had airlocks on them,” Phillis says. “Say there was a problem with one of them, you could just take out, then fix it separate from the rest of the base so that nothing else was affected.”

Grussenmeyer’s design employs two main box-shaped ends connected by a middle living space. It also uses solar panels for energy.

“I did as much research as I could,” Grussenmeyer says. “Mine wasn’t as much as a single proposal, but many ideas for possible proposals.”

Currently, students are working through the “Search For Life” module. Each lesson is intended to get participants thinking about future technology and exploration, and the problem solving skills required to be part of it.

Some of what North Medford participants have learned translates right into their regular schoolwork.

“I find myself thinking about it more in depth outside of class and thinking about the details I’ve learned,” Phillis says.

The program ultimately is designed to keep students who already are interested in STEM careers on the path. That interest is apparent in the state of Oregon, Harbour-Van Hoy says.

“We have currently 86 Oregon juniors participating in the program,” she says. “What that says to me is that there is a need that we’re trying to fill. They’re our future astronauts and space engineers in Oregon. I think that’s important for people to recognize in their own community.”

Visit https://www.museumofflight.org/WAS for more information.

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

Tara Phillis designed a moon base for one of the modules in the Western Aerospace Scholars program.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneNorth Medford High School students Tara Phillis, 17, and Sarah Grussenmeyer, 16, are participants in the Western Aerospace Scholars Program.