SCHENECTADY — Thursday’s test wasn’t the typical assessment taken by middle and high schoolers.
Instead of picking up pencils and paper, 15 students from the Gloversville Enlarged School District’s High-Altitude Achievement Club watched a satellite vibrate and shake while computers charted its performance. The test was meant to simulate how well the satellite would hold up against the pressures of being put on a rocket and launched into space, which is exactly what will happen in late December in California. That’s when the satellite containing an experiment designed and developed by the students is expected to board a Firefly Aerospace rocket destined for space, and remain in orbit for three to four months.
The event Thursday, hosted by Innovative Test Solutions in Schenectady and conducted in partnership with the Teachers in Space program, offered the kind of learning experience that is as real and concrete as the measurable results of the satellite’s performance under 100 times the force of gravity.
“The students get to see real-life application of the stuff that they are seeing in school,” said Chris Murphy, the director of the High-Altitude Achievement Club and Gloversville Middle School’s science department head. “A lot of times we have kids that come through school, and they are like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I doing that?’ This gives them the ability to say, ‘That’s why I did the calculus class, that’s why I took physics, and this is why I learned what we learned in physics.’”
Bee Clo, 13, who is in eighth grade at Gloversville Middle School, said she found a lot of value in Thursday’s event.
“The satellite moved really fast, almost so fast that you couldn’t see it. It was really cool,” Clo said. “This is what interests me. I like learning about things that happen in real life, not just math equations.”
That kind of real-world learning is precisely what Murphy was striving for when he created the High-Altitude program.
The idea for the club was launched in 2012 when Murphy went to a seminar conducted by Teachers in Space in Palmdale, California. Teachers in Space is a nonprofit focused on stimulating student interest in STEM learning by providing teachers with space experiments and industry connections. Elizabeth Kennick, the president of the nonprofit, said the organization has worked with students across the country and has conducted experiments with major companies, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which, among other launches, recently sent William Shatner into space.
At the 2012 seminar, Murphy said he and 11 other teachers learned how to properly fly a weather balloon, which can travel more than 20 miles up.
“I said if 12 teachers can do this, I can do this with students, Murphy said. “So when I came back, I was gung-ho.”
He was eventually able to secure funding with the help of then-state Sen. Hugh Farley, and the Gloversville High-Altitude program soon took flight.
The current experiment the students are conducting could have a tangible impact on the aviation industry. The students are testing to see whether a piezoelectric compound that they created can prevent radiation. Murphy explained that pilots and flight attendants are exposed to radiation while aboard planes and other aircraft. He said the compound, which is thin and lightweight, could eventually be used by aerospace companies when building planes, rockets and even when crafting spacesuits. Inside the roughly shoebox-based satellite, which was built by Teachers In Space, will be two geiger counters that measure radiation exposure. One will be covered with the protective compound and one will not be. Throughout the satellite’s orbit, the students will be able to collect data from the geiger counters via APRS radio connection, or Automatic Packet Reporting System, an amateur radio-based system for real-time digital communications.
Students in the club have already launched the compound on weather balloons and planes and found it to be effective against radiation, Murphy said. Space is the next frontier.
“We’ve been testing it on several different aircraft, so we’re pretty sure that it is working, we just don’t know how well,” Murphy said. “Getting it out of the atmosphere is going to eliminate a lot of the unknowns because now it is out in space.”
The Gloversville club’s connection to Schenectady-based Innovative Test Solutions was actually a fortunate circumstance which arose out of the pandemic. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that aircraft meet certain criteria before being allowed to fly. That requires the kind of testing that Innovative Test Solutions does for companies ranging from General Electric to Pratt & Whitney to Siemens to Mitsubishi. For previous flights, the Gloversville club had been working with a testing firm based in California, but the pandemic forced them to look locally, Murphy said. A quick Google search led him to the Schenectady engineering firm.
The organization was happy to help with the testing and offer their services for free because it was a great opportunity to help young students become interested in engineering, said Kevin McEvoy, the general manager at Innovative Test Solutions.
“This teaches you how things break, which is an important component to engineering,” McEvoy said, explaining mechanical testing lets you see how materials react under stress. “Mechanical testing gives you the opportunity to get the preview of that, and it’s a good foundation even if you don’t make mechanical testing a career. It’s a good foundation for understanding the science behind materials and properties.”
State Senator Jim Tedisco, who attended the event, spoke of the benefits that can come out of a difficult period like the pandemic.
“One thing we found out is when you have a crisis like this, there is a lot of innovation,” he said. He said he was optimistic about the bright futures ahead of the students sitting in front of him.
One of those students was 13-year-old Michael Rubscha, an eighth-grader at Gloversville Middle School.
“I learned a lot about what I might want to do when I grow up,” Rubscha said. “I’ve always wanted to be an engineer, but I don’t know what type. I like taking things apart, putting them back together, fixing them, but I also like computers, coding, and a lot of other things. This has been eye-opening to me.”