By Frank Kourt
A group of Kentucky middle school students had what can only be described as an out-of-this-world experience Friday as they got to ask questions of an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.
Using a video/audio downlink with the space station, orbiting about 220 miles above Earth, the selected students from middle schools got to ask questions of Tom Marshburn, M.D., ranging from what it’s like to experience microgravity to whether he would be willing to go deeper into space, should the opportunity present itself.
Virginia Deaver, a student at Berea Community Middle School, who asked the question about microgravity, said she’s thinking about entering the field of astrophysics and found Friday’s experience fascinating.
“I’m so honored to have been part of this,” said Deaver. Marshburn answered that while experiencing microgravity is interesting, he looks forward to the day when he can again set down a coffee cup without having it float away.
Triston Fitzpatrick and Maria Hoover, both of B. Michael Caudill Middle School in Richmond, asked a question about what it’s like to work with fellow astronauts and cosmonauts.
“Absolutely wonderful,” replied Marshburn, who added that one of the best things about the venture is getting to know and work with personnel from other countries and cultures.
Fitzpatrick said the experience made him a bit nervous, but both students agreed that it was impressive to be able to look at and talk directly to an astronaut while he was orbiting in space.
Sam House, of Berea Community Middle School, who is contemplating a career as an architect, called the experience “very interesting,” a reaction that was obviously common to all who participated.
Bryden Allen, of Clark-Moores Middle School, was the fifth Madison County student who was chosen to ask a question.
The five Madison County students who participated in the downlink were among 23 students chosen to ask questions during the 15-minute downlink, which was made possible
by a partnership among EKU and Kentucky Educational Television and NASA.
The students who got to ask questions were chosen on the basis of essays and their submitted questions. Those who were unable to get their questions in because of time constraints were able to pose their questions to a panel of experts at the planetarium following the downlink.
EKU was selected by NASA as one of only six downlink sites nationwide where students were able to converse with space station astronauts. The event was broadcast live by KET, allowing students in classrooms throughout the state to tune in during the downlink.
The event took place in EKU’s Hummel Planetarium. Following the downlink, the students adjourned to the adjacent Perkins Building for more activities, including the judging of science projects, breakout sessions and lunch.
The event included 160 seventh- and eighth-grade students from 45 area schools, including seven in Madison County, who were identified as gifted or talented in science and/or mathematics.
The program was coordinated for EKU by the
university’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Health (STEM-H) Institute, whose goals include supporting and expanding partnerships between EKU, schools and communities; advancing the public understanding of the needs and opportunities in the STEM-H disciplines; and increasing learning opportunities and levels of achievement in students in the stated disciplines.
Jaleh Rezale, Ph.D., associate dean of graduate education and research, and interim director of the STEM-H Institute, said the project fulfilled all three goals of the institute.
“We are focusing on middle school students, since research has shown this age group is the most vulnerable,” she said.
“This is the time they decide about their educational interests. Often it is the time they lose interest in math and science. What excites me is the opportunity to inspire and excite the students and teachers about mathematics, science and technology.”