A group of Grand Forks middle school girls, along with friends and family members, met in Clifford Hall on UND’s campus Monday morning, Aug. 19, for a very special phone call – from astronaut Christina Koch, currently on mission aboard the International Space Station.
The group of about 16 middle school students and their families, as well as a few members of the public, met in a lecture room with presenters Caitlin Nolby, deputy director of The North Dakota Space Grant Consortium, and Coordinator Marissa Saad, who hosted an after-school space camp for 20 middle-school girls in the "SciGirls in Space" project, during the Spring 2019 semester, on the UND campus.
The SciGirls in Space event was the culmination of a partnership with SciGirls, an Emmy-Award winning PBS TV show and website, to encourage kids’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“We were partners with the SciGirls PBS program, and the goal of SciGirls is to get girls between the ages of 8-13 really interested in science and STEM. So our goal is, of course, to inspire them to pursue these fields,” said Nolby. “I think a lot of them were interested in science in the first place, which is why they signed up for space camp, but giving them the opportunity to actually get hands-on and try some of the challenges that they would in the real world.”
The Space Camp program involved outreach programming for kids and professional development for educators as they engaged kids in STEM career paths.
“It was really fun. It was a really unique opportunity for all the middle school girls in the area to be able to do hands-on STEM, and they got to call an astronaut,” said Nolby. “So they did a lot of group work, a lot of team challenges; launching rockets and building neutrally buoyant objects. I think they had a really good time.”
The students enjoyed a pre-taped interview with Italian astronaut and engineer Luca Parmitano as they waited for the downlink – a one way call from the ISS – to five schools in the United States, of which UND, host of the SciGirls in Space project, was one.
After Parmitano's taped interview, Koch came on live. The Michigan-born astronaut appeared on a large screen in the lecture room, and answered questions for about 20 minutes as she floated aboard the station, sometimes speaking while upside down.
Students from the five schools sent in questions and the list was narrowed to 12. Children from a middle school in New York were selected to read the questions, which Koch then answered, as objects she showed them weightlessly floated around her, before being strapped back in.
The questions ranged from what kind of personal items she brought aboard the ISS (a sketchbook), how she brushes her hair (straight up in the air), how she sleeps in space (strapped into a sleeping bag on the wall – “very peaceful,” Koch mentioned), to how they water plants used for air cleaning and oxygen production experiments.
After Koch signed off to return to her duties the kids tried virtual reality headsets programmed with a number of different scenarios. They then had a pizza lunch.
Madison Johnson, 12, who attends Schroeder Middle School, enjoyed the virtual reality headset, though it made her a bit woozy.
“I’m walking in space right now. It’s so hard. My stomach is like ‘woah, what’s happening here?'” she said as she took a short break from the device.
“It was really, really cool. I’m super excited that we got to do that,” said Della Phillips, 12, of Grand Forks.
Though she isn’t necessarily interested in going into space right now, she would like to help – from Earth, though a trip to space isn’t out of the question.
“I think it would be neat to learn more things and maybe help pave the way for humans to live on Mars or on the moon,” said Phillips. “And then maybe go live there someday.”