An Asteroid of One’s Own

Local space center makes a stellar innovation for homebound students

Intern Stephen Yezukevicz moves a 25-inch mirror telescope.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Once upon a time, in the universe of 2019, kids got to look through real telescopes, touch real meteorites, and meet real scientists. Then COVID-19 shut down the world — and the schools — and hands-on learning went zoom into the ether. Welcome to the New Normal, where the computer app Zoom creates virtual classrooms and no one touches anything but a personal computer keyboard.

Into this new frontier, Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in Rosman knew its acclaimed on-site educational programs would go unattended for fear of spreading the coronavirus. “We spent much of spring coming up with ways we could provide experiences in space science for kids during the summer that would be safe during a pandemic,” says PARI’s Director of Software Engineering Tim DeLisle. “When a lot of places were just cancelling their summers or switching to video only, we were determined that wasn’t a path we wanted to tread. We knew we couldn’t safely pack a bunch of kids in a small space, so they couldn’t come here for a traditional classroom experience. 

Physics and astronomy interns Deandria Harper, left, and Paula DeAnda stay busy sorting through geological materials, putting together instructional videos, and assembling hands-on science kits for local kids learning at home.
Photo by Karin Strickland

“We’d already heard students, teachers, and parents complaining about Zoom fatigue. Students’ engagement and attention were dwindling, and we knew we couldn’t create a stimulating experience by just sitting behind a camera every day and expecting kids to sit and watch us. We wanted to put things in their hands.”

With necessity mothering invention, PARI’s staff developed a series of kits for kids ages 11-17. The students received a big box filled with things like astronomy-grade binoculars, real meteorites, and the materials to build rockets and grow plants like they do on the International Space Station. “Things that moved and changed and grew and exploded — things they could touch and taste and experiment with,” DeLisle explains.

These were things the kids could use again and again — and keep. Given the overwhelming positive feedback on the summer’s pilot program, PARI refined and developed “At Home Space Science Kits, Wave One” for this fall. Wave One has 16 kits, and PARI is already developing “Wave Two,” which will add 15 more activities.

Photo by Karin Strickland

The kits are packaged as “Inter-Planetary,” “Inter-Stellar,” and “Inter-Galactic,” with different levels of complexity: “Blue-Star,” “Yellow-Star,” and “Red-Star.” They come with labs and video access to guest speakers, including a rocket scientist from Virgin Galactic, a Smithsonian researcher, and a variable-star researcher.

“It was a really cool experience for me to get to participate in the PARI Summer Camp at home,” says 13-year-old Nathanael Owen, an 8th grader. “I learned a lot about science and got to do some cool experiments. It made me more interested in space and science. I enjoyed learning about meteorites and even getting to find one in my kit. I bleached a T-shirt with my own drawing. It turned out really cool. 

“I also got to make Alka Seltzer rockets. I had never done that, and it was really fun to see how high the rockets could go, depending on how much water and the amount of Alka Seltzers [that were] used.”

PARI Director of Software Engineering Tim DeLisle, left, and Pari Director of Education Melanie Crowson pack up kits for area students.
Photo by Karin Strickland

With justified optimism, DeLisle believes, “we can turn this program into something people can get all the time. We’re putting together a few ways parents and teachers can sign up to get these kits into more homes and classrooms at a reduced cost.” As of Sept. 1, the exact prices of the new kits had not been determined, but PARI staff was working to have the costs underwritten as much as possible through grants and contributions. During the summer, it cost about $1,200 per kid to develop the 16 kits, but the majority of the families paid only $15. “Most of this was covered by a grant from NASA that came through our partner organizations. Now that the development is done, the cost is reduced to the materials and packaging,” DeLisle says. PARI also has scholarships, based on requirements such as age, financial need, and academic merit.

For the foreseeable future, PARI sees these kits as their New Normal in helping kids learn about the heavens. Online registration is scheduled until April 2021. However, “We hope the registration never ends,” says DeLisle.

He’s looking seriously into the future, with people populating the Moon and Mars much sooner than anyone might imagine. “Once people are living in space, they’ll need everything people need, and they’ll need a lot of support here on Earth, too. So, it’s not just about math and physics — it’s about art, communication, health and nutrition, entertainment, and wellbeing. 

“We want kids to think about things like, what happens when you need a haircut in zero gravity? How do you keep your hair from floating around? How do you make sure it doesn’t get stuck in machinery after it’s cut and floats away? 

“These are the real types of challenges that creative minds will have to solve that a lot of people don’t think about when they picture astronauts and rocket scientists.”

Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, 1 Pari Drive, Rosman. At press time, PARI was holding outdoor activities, and its facility was open by appointment for tour groups of nine or fewer. Check the website for the latest visitor information per state mandates, and for information on how to register to receive home kits: pari.edu/at-home-space-science-kits.

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