OPELOUSAS, La. — More than 20 high-schoolers have been working with NASA engineers and trainers to simulate life on a space station, create circuits and send electrical currents through graphite on paper this week at Northwest High School.
They’ve produced these experiments and more through NASA Astro Camp presented by Central Creativity and St. Landry Parish schools. Students are participating in-person at Northwest High and the Magnet Academy for Cultural Arts in Opelousas.
Students from across the district gathered in the Northwest High library Wednesday to hear from Chad Hammons, connecting virtually from home in Houston.
Hammons is over the portable life support systems, or backpacks, astronauts wear on their space suits — “specifically the new suits for new astronauts going to the moon,” he explained.
He fielded questions about pressurizing suits and the dangers faced in space. He said they have to watch out for micrometeors and moon dust, which is surprisingly sharp.
“The moon really wreaks havoc on our suits,” Hammons said.
The Mississippi native finished his interview with a reminder that there are different ways to get to NASA and the space career field.
“If you want to become a scientist, there’s a path for you,” he said.
That message is resonating with Astro Campers like Madison and Allison Freeman, twin sisters who will start their senior year at Eunice High next month.
“I’ve enjoyed seeing that there’s more to space than astronauts and planets,” Allison said. “There are the people in the shadows.”
She’s referring to Hammons and others the group has heard from this week, including a woman who spent three months in isolation in the Arctic wilderness. Allison explained that the survival exercise was meant to mimic a space environment and provide vital information for future missions.
“It’s the same concept,” the 17-year-old said. “I was mind-blown that you can use something here on Earth for to inform how to survive on Mars.”
Allison wants to be a mechanical engineer one day, so the STEM camp was right up her alley, especially building a small wooden rocket with an LED light. They had to use a circuit to run a current to power the bulb.
“My favorite part wasn’t the building but troubleshooting everyone else’s,” she said. “I like to see why some things don’t work.”
Her sister Madison said the experience has opened her eyes to the other parts of going to space, something she doesn’t plan to do.
“Going to space is not what I plan to go into but I saw (camp) as a chance to broaden my horizons,” she said. “I thought it would be fun. It’s been fun so far.”
This week she has eaten “miracle berries” that tricked her tastebuds into switching sweet and salty, “chewed” water after making waterpods that help astronauts stay hydrated, and planted rye grass in crushed coconuts rather than soil. The grass grows quickly and without much water, important characteristics for food in space.
“They’re teaching us a lot of survival stuff in a short amount of time,” Madison said.
On Wednesday they made paper rockets and launched them by blowing through a straw. It quickly turned into a competition.
“The best part has been seeing them all having fun with it, and they really get it,” Eunice High counselor Rachel Smith said.
She and fellow EHS teacher Keenya Alfred are facilitating the camp at Northwest. All the teaching comes from NASA employees on the computer screen in real-time, Alfred explained.
Smith said the students are learning a variety of skills, from team-building to how to use the Earth’s resources to cook. They made s’mores with help from the sun later in the week.
“They’re enjoying learning different ways energy can be used and seeing how things taste in space,” Alfred said.
But Donald Babino, 13, admitted that the waterpods made for a strange experience.
“It tasted like water but you have to chew, which is weird,” Donald said.
The camp is a collaboration between the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and multiple school districts in Acadiana as part of the college’s Center for Excellence in Education’s “STEMulating Summer 2021” program.