Local area students selected for aerospace program

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Students from Glenns Ferry and Mountain Home will be at the Ames Research Center as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft reaches Pluto in mid-July following its nine-year journey. (NASA illustration)

Students from Mountain Home High School and Glenns Ferry High School will join others from across the state to participate in an effort hosted by the Idaho Department of Education.

Kim Sanchez and Sky Gennette from Glenns Ferry are among those scheduled to travel to NASA's Ames Research Center in California this summer as part of the Idaho Science and Aerospace Scholars program.

The name of the student from Mountain Home High School wasn't immediately available.

Their visit will coincide with the flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto in mid-July by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Managed by the California-based research center, the mission will give these students a chance to see interplanetary history being made.

The visit represents the culmination of an effort by approximately 130 juniors who signed up earlier this year to take part in the Aerospace Scholars program. It allowed them to take an on-line, NASA-developed course on space exploration offered by the State Department through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy.

The course teaches a broad range of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM­. The program seeks to capture the imagination of students with an emphasis on reaching out to rural schools.

"In some of the smaller districts, there may be just a handful of students, or maybe only one, with a love of astronomy or space," said Peter Kavouras, who directs the state's aerospace scholars effort. "By partnering with the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, along with Idaho business and industry, we can offer a program that can inspire them and give them a chance to decide how to focus their classes in their senior year, or when they head to college."

Based on their course performance, a select group of 88 students and 10 volunteer teachers and mentors were invited to participate in one of two, week-long summer academies at Boise State University, during which they will travel to the Ames Research Center from July 14 to 15 or July 28 to 29. During the academy week, the students will break into teams to plan a simulated human mission to Mars and meet researchers doing that type of planning and research in the real world.

The aerospace scholar program participants and their families also have the opportunity to take part in a series of regional capstone celebrations that offer interactive, hands-on Idaho-based STEM activities. It includes tours of various facilities, labs and sites that showcase the state's STEM resources and career opportunities.

"It's a core NASA program, but we infuse it with an Idaho emphasis," Kavouras said.

The tours include research laboratories at each of the state's three universities in addition to private industries like Micron and Hewlett-Packard as well as the Idaho National Laboratory based out of Idaho Falls.

"Idaho has a lot to offer in the way of STEM careers for our students," Kavouras said. "We do things that will encourage our students to stay in Idaho."

The capstone celebrations offer a chance to see first-hand some real-world applications of STEM in the Gem State, he added.

"Each offers a unique look at what they do with STEM," Kavouras said. "For the kids who couldn't attend the academies, we wanted to be able to give them a chance, in each region, for some hands-on experiences."

The Idaho effort arose out of the NASA High School Aerospace Scholars program in Texas, created 14 years ago in partnership with the Johnson Space Center. It was followed by a similar program in Virginia that included a partnership with NASA Langley and another in Washington state that partnered with Boeing.

Idaho didn't have a direct NASA company or facility to serve as a partner, but that didn't stop Boise State University Distinguished Educator in Residence Barbara Morgan from putting together a meeting in May 2009 with representatives of the Virginia and Texas programs as well as Idaho stakeholders and elected officials to explore creating a similar program here.

In addition to being a teacher, Morgan is also a former astronaut.

"The question she asked was, 'why not Idaho?' " Kavouras said. "We didn't have a NASA facility here, but the committee (formed to explore the idea and led by the State Department of Education) went looking for partnerships -- groups like the Discovery Center, the INL, Micron, Hewlett-Packard, our three universities and the Idaho National Guard, who offered all kinds of help, including in-kind support."

Less than four months later, the state launched its first aerospace scholars program. Today, Idaho remains one of only four states in the nation with this type of program.