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Johnsburg, Cary-Grove students win regional STEM/STEAM competition

Members from the Flammenwerfer Axolotls team pose for a photo with visiting astronaut Kay Hire and their awards from the 2019 Go For Launch! American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Apollo Series competition. From left are Grace Flynn of Johnsburg High School, Jake Drews of Cary-Grove High School, Daniel Marek of Cary-Grove, Lucas Artner of Johnsburg and Trinity Nett of Johnsburg.
Members from the Flammenwerfer Axolotls team pose for a photo with visiting astronaut Kay Hire and their awards from the 2019 Go For Launch! American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Apollo Series competition. From left are Grace Flynn of Johnsburg High School, Jake Drews of Cary-Grove High School, Daniel Marek of Cary-Grove, Lucas Artner of Johnsburg and Trinity Nett of Johnsburg.

JOHNSBURG – Michelle Lucas has been in love with space since she was a little girl. She knew she wanted to work in the space industry, and through hard work and determination, she was able to.

Lucas grew up in the Chicago area and attended Purdue University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where she studied aerospace engineering and space studies. She had the opportunity to do flight research that simulates microgravity, and upon graduation, she got her first job at Johnson Space Center working the payload safety review panel.

She went on to work at mission control for the International Space Station, followed by a technical instructor for astronauts, flight controllers and other instructors, working with many space shuttle and space station crews, as well as international partners in Europe, Japan and Russia.

“As a young girl, I wanted to attend space camp and was only able to do so because I was awarded a scholarship,” Lucas said. “I wanted to be able to give back as someone had so kindly done for me. I decided to start Higher Orbits to run space inspired STEM/STEAM events in the ‘backyards’ of students across the country.”

Lucas is founder and president of Higher Orbits, a nonprofit with the mission of promoting science, technology, engineering and math, along with leadership, teamwork and communication through the use of spaceflight.

“We have a massive shortage of students who have STEM degrees, and will have a major shortfall of employees to fill jobs in the near future,” Lucas said. “Programs like Go For Launch! are workforce development for STEM professionals of the future.

“I also believe space inspires. I am not trying to turn every student who attends Go For Launch! into a rocket scientist, though I certainly support it if that’s what they want. I just believe that space is a great way to inspire students to realize there are many options out there if they are willing to study STEM, and we hope to inspire them to aspire to be something bigger than they’d dreamed before. That’s why I feel this program is important.”

Go For Launch! is a multiday program that uses space exploration as a platform to launch student involvement in the STEM and STEAM (STEM plus art) fields.

Presented by Higher Orbits, members of this group travel around our country offering students in grades eight through 12 an opportunity to create science experiments that have a chance of being launched to the International Space Station. Winners at each regional competition compete nationally for this honor. Multiday camps are sponsored locally for these competitions.

Local team “Flammenwerfer Axolotls,” sponsored by Scot Forge, won the 2019 Go For Launch! American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Apollo Series competition. The regional competition took place July 23 and 24 at Turtle Creek in Spring Grove. The win put the team up for consideration for the national prize.

“Flammenwerfer” means flamethrower in German, and an axolotl is a Mexican water salamander that has unique properties such as cancer immunity and limb regrowth. The team is composed of Johnsburg High School sophomores Lucas Artner, Grace Flynn and Trinity Nett, and Cary-Grove High School sophomores Daniel Marek and Jake Drews.

Their experiment focuses around how a Mamestra brassicae, or cabbage moth, larva makes a chrysalis in microgravity. They hope to view the way microgravity affects how a cabbage moth forms its pupa in order to gather potential information for missions such as terraforming other planets.

The group argues that these moths can be an important factor, as moths are pollinators as well as key food for many species. The team members also hope to understand how these moths could help or affect possible “farms” in space.

“We came up with the project just like you would come up with anything else. We gave out our ideas until we figured out something that stuck,” said Artner, 16. “Our biggest challenge was trying to find something that would stand out and have an important impact on future studies and space exploration. We figured that the cabbage moth would be a good experiment to go with since it has scientific appeal and is an intriguing topic.”

Their overall goal is to see if insects such as moths and butterflies can metamorphosize in microgravity. If they can, generations of space moths would be able to pollinate plants in microgravity as well as have easier transport to different planets or space stations.

The winners of the national competition were announced via Facebook Live on Oct. 13. Artner said he was surprised, but he knew he had a great team.

He said they all learned a lesson on motivation.

“We were really surprised when we won,” Artner said. “We had no idea what the other winners had for their experiments, so we were very anxious up until the reveal on Facebook.

“We work so well together because all our strengths cover for each other’s weaknesses. Everyone has something they can add, and everyone has a specialty for each part of the project. A good lesson we learned throughout this is that you’re more productive working on projects you want to do.”

Artner and Marek attended the International Astronautical Congress post-win, which took place in Washington, D.C., this year. The event brings space people from across the globe to discuss what is going on in the industry and to discuss future plans and possibilities.

The students were able to participate in watching some of the various presentations and sessions, and they also got to meet many folks from the aerospace industry and tell them about their experiment. They also had an opportunity to meet real astronauts.

The Flammenwerfer Axolotls team’s experiment will launch in 2020, although the date has not yet been set.

It is yet to be determined whether it will launch on a Northrup Grumman Antares rocket in the Cygnus capsule or on SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in a Dragon capsule. While onboard the International Space Station, data will be downlinked daily for the students to evaluate. The experiment will return to Earth for a final evaluation.

“All of the student projects that were in the finals were excellent, but this project had a very cohesive thought process for data gathering and a unique topic,” Lucas said. “To me, one of the biggest benefits is the inspiration it gives to these students. I mean, they are high school students who have science that is being conducted onboard the International Space Station. Many career scientists can’t even say that.”

Lucas said the goal for the program is to make sure all students are able to attend regardless of financial status or STEM background. For information on programs and company partnership opportunities, visit www.higherorbits.org.

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