Sea Road School in Kennebunk teacher Ann Stockbridge works with student Bridget Gates. Stockbridge submitted a proposal that was accepted that may lead to students conversing with astronauts in space later this year. Susan Bloomfield photo

KENNEBUNK — Regional School Unit 21 has been selected for an out-of-this-world opportunity. An international association of space agencies and Amateur Radio organizations has chosen RSU 21, represented by Sea Road School, to advance in a process climaxing in a conversation between students and astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

RSU 21 was one of 10 schools selected nationally to continue through the multi-month acceptance process. The contact event with the ISS could occur between July and December of this year.

The opportunity is provided by ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station), an association that includes NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, the American Radio Relay League, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, and space agencies in Canada, Japan, Europe, and Russia. They collaborate to enable students to communicate with ISS astronauts and help inspire interest in space, communications and STEM coursework.

A STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) curriculum began in RSU 21 four years ago. In grades three to five, students are currently learning about magnetism, robotics, 3-D printing, digital citizenship, and coding, among other subjects.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime, memorable event that our students will be involved in,” said Ann Stockbridge, STEM technician at Kennebunk’s Sea Road School, who wrote the project proposal and is the project’s main contact. “It pulls together everything we have been doing in STEM.”

The proposed contact will take place in the Sea Road School gymnasium, as it supports the largest student body of the district’s grade three to five schools, and it can offer state-of-the-art audio/visual equipment. The ARISS Education Plan will be shared with teachers at the Kennebunkport Consolidated School and Mildred L. Day School and should the project come to fruition, those schools’ students will be invited to attend the contact event.

Stockbridge, her enthusiasm uncontainable, says this type of learning is perfectly experiential for the students. “Picture yourself as an astronaut. What is that like? What can I do? They can be a part of it.”

The inception of the ISS project took place 18 months ago when members of the New England Radio Discussion Society, known as NERDS, which meets in Kennebunk, approached Cory Steere, principal of Sea Road School with an idea. Amateur Radio enthusiasts knew about the ARISS program and third- through fifth-grade students seemed especially receptive to its goals. “ARISS is a project designed for kids,” NERDS founder Alex Mendelsohn said.

Mendelsohn wants young people to learn about Amateur Radio, also known as ham radio. He considered the best way to do that was to “attract them through space travel and its supporting technology. … Ham radio is an exciting scientific and cultural activity. It supports every STEM topic. It is the nexus of radios, computers, smart phones, the web, geography, and languages. It’s a natural.”

Amateur Radio on the ISS is used for educational purposes but it also serves as the emergency backup communication if all other modes fail. Astronauts communicating with students must have an Amateur Radio license.

The proposal submitted by Stockbridge sets many supportive parts into motion. With the liaison help of NERDS member Tom Moyer, partnering Amateur Radio club members will assist RSU 21 educators by developing and presenting hands-on activities about communications and electronics. The Astronomical Society of Northern New England will offer lessons on space topics. The Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk will host interactive exhibits before and after the planned ISS contact.

ARISS will assign an educational ambassador and a technical mentor to advance learning opportunities. As detailed in the Education Plan, virtually every class, including physical education, art, languages, music, and even lunch (serving favorite foods of the astronauts!) will contribute ARISS-related lessons as the school year progresses.

The path toward actual contact is contingent upon the successful completion of several more steps, including submitting an equipment plan that explores what instruments are required and how the communication will work. Finally, all parties must agree to a connection time that matches both the school’s schedule and the relatively small windows of opportunity made available by busy NASA and ISS staff.

In May 2017, Mainer and current International Space Station crew member Jessica Meir visited with students in an RSU 21 gymnasium, an event coordinated by RSU 21’s STEM Team.

“Thanks to Jessica, space is not something scary and far-away,” Stockbridge said. “A conversation with the ISS would help make space exploration more personal for the students. It would make space close.”

The author is a member of the New England Radio Discussion Society.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: