2017-03-17 / Schools

The sky’s the limit for high schoolers in NASA program

Students build gadgets to use on space station
By Hector Gonzalez

REACHING HIGH—Student Ibrahim Ramadan, 16, talks about his experiences in the HUNCH program during a March 2 news conference at the Ventura County Office of Education Career Education Center in Camarillo that kicked off this year’s program. 
ROB VARELA/Acorn Newspapers REACHING HIGH—Student Ibrahim Ramadan, 16, talks about his experiences in the HUNCH program during a March 2 news conference at the Ventura County Office of Education Career Education Center in Camarillo that kicked off this year’s program. ROB VARELA/Acorn Newspapers Applied manufacturing instructor Justin Riege never dreamed his students would one day be designing and building hardware headed into outer space.

After all, when Riege started teaching students manufacturing skills four years ago, the typical high school shop class was mostly about drilling, sanding and lathing blocks of wood.

He remembers getting advice— and then quickly tossing it—from old-school shop teachers about the types of class projects he should assign his students.

“They would say, ‘OK, here’s what you do. You get three projects, and the first one is going to be a sanding block.’ And I was like, ‘Really? You’re going to have these kids sit down and work for a whole month on building a block of wood?’ Who’s going to get excited about a sanding block? So I never did that.”

In the two industrial manufacturing classes Riege has taught at the Ventura County Office of Education’s Career Education Center in Camarillo for the past two years, students do much more than build sanding blocks.

His 55 or so students design and create their own electric guitars, program mechatronic robots and, as of this semester, engineer, machine and measure custom parts for the International Space Station.

At a community event on March 2, county education officials and NASA project manager Florence Gold formally unveiled a partnership between the two entities that lets students in Riege’s classes participate in the HUNCH program, which stands for High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware.

VCOE’s Career Education Center at Camarillo Airport is the first California high school campus to partner with NASA’s HUNCH, Gold said.

Launched in 2003 as the brainchild of NASA’s Stacy Hale, who leads the program nationwide, HUNCH was originally conceived as an inexpensive way for NASA to contract out for the type of utilitarian hardware that can quickly zoom up in price when assigned to engineers working for the big aerospace companies.

“He got the idea to let high school students build the hardware,” Gold said. “Of course, it got a lot of pushback initially.”

Since HUNCH’s inception, the program has become an integral part of NASA’s hardware procurement. Students at some 70 participating high schools around the country now design and build gadgets used for astronaut training and on the space station.

For example, since 2003 HUNCH students have delivered 15 stowage lockers to the space agency. Last month one of the lockers flew to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX-10.

Under the partnership agreement, NASA provides Riege’s students with a drawing of a particular piece of equipment the space agency needs. Students then create a 3-D image of the drawing on a computer, machine the part, then measure and document the piece to ensure it’s made to NASA’s specifications.

“They not only have to machine it, but students have to document everything,” Gold said. “Because now it’s flight hardware, so NASA needs to have very, very precise and complete documentation in case something happens. This is really difficult work that these high school students are doing.”

Although the partnership was officially announced last week, several students in Riege’s class have already received certification through NASA as HUNCH inspectors. They received a stamp with their names which the students will use on documents to certify that they inspected the hardware they created and it meets the space agency’s specifications.

Although traditional shop classes are largely gone from today’s high schools, pushed aside by new state educational priorities focused on history, math, English and other core subjects, hands-on learning never really went away.

Today, career and technical education has taken over that role, and a nationwide movement toward STEM education, which stresses science, technology, engineering and math, fits perfectly with the goals of 21st century career education programs, officials said.

In the course of building their own electric guitars, for example, students in Riege’s classes learn about engineering and computer design to create the body of the instrument; use math to measure, cut and assemble the pieces; and learn about the electronics that give the guitar its oomph.

“Especially nowadays, with all the technology, things are more multidisciplinary,” the instructor said.

Other students are free to form groups to work on ideas for projects they come up with on their own, he said. Some of his students prefer building and programming mechatronic robots.

NASA’s HUNCH program provides yet another option for his students, Riege said. But whatever project they choose to work on, it has to excite their interest.

“Students who are into space and into engineering love the HUNCH program,” he said. “There’s no one project that everyone loves. My philosophy is you have to have a hook, and the guitar project hooks a lot of students. But not everyone is a musician. Some people would rather deal with something more techie. So that’s why the HUNCH program is so cool. It’s going to be another opportunity for them.”

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