Not many junior high and high schools can say they’ve had multiple experiments run aboard the International Space Station. Then again, there aren’t many schools like High Tech High.
High Tech High Chula Vista (HTHCV) is an open-campus, project-based public charter school in San Diego county with an emphasis on hands-on and community learning. As such, teachers are always looking for new and innovative ways to inspire their students, which made Quest for Space a perfect fit. “I almost had to re-read the inquiry email,” seventh grade science teacher Adam Koh said. “We’re doing an experiment in space? Of course I want in!”
Adam wasn’t the only teacher excited at the prospect of Quest for Space–Kara Quinby, who had long wanted to incorporate the cosmos into her curriculum, saw this as a great opportunity to better engage her ninth-graders. “I found that when students hear the word ‘physics’ or ‘engineering’ they close down. But if I ask, ‘how many of you have looked up at the sky?’ Then it taps into childhood creativity and wonder.”
Knowing that they wanted to do the project with their students but not knowing many specifics, Adam headed up north to the Bay Area for the Quest summer training program. “It was really helpful to go through what the students would go through–the coding, the building, and making those mistakes firsthand. Feeling the struggle that goes along with the experiments, but also realizing this is doable. I left the training feeling like I could teach it during the school year.”
Now that Adam and Kara felt they had a handle on the material, it was time for their first challenge: introducing the project to the students. “I had no knowledge of space and didn’t even know the ISS existed,” tenth grader student Hana says. “I’d never experienced anything with engineering or being a project manager or an astrophysicist, so I wasn’t sure what the project was gonna do for me.”
Hana wasn’t alone in being unsure about the project, now-eighth grader Bella remembers feeling hesitant as well when Adam outlined the project. “I was skeptical at first because I’m not really a fan of coding,” Bella says. “But I thought space was a cool topic, so I was willing to go into it with an open mindset.”
What started out as just another school project for some quickly became a full-classroom effort as deadlines neared and students got more and more excited. “Having a 14 or 15 year old realize their data was getting run by professionals and astronauts, and that ‘Google world’ in San Jose was looking at their lab reports made a huge difference for them,” Kara says.
“They realized they had to collaborate with each other and it fostered that genuine excitement and brought the real world to their front door here in Chula Vista.”
For Adam, another great feature of Quest for Space was how responsive the team was to questions–sometimes he would even get a response within the class period. “That support enabled me to succeed and I think if the support wasn’t there, the project could have gone by the wayside. It was the glue that helped push us through till the end.”
After months of working on their project and countless hours spent after-school and during lunch getting the components up and running, the members of “Space Team HTHCV” saw their hard work come to fruition and their experiment run aboard the ISS. “For them to see the school logo that they coded and that they figured out how to program, to see their names loop through, they were so excited–that made it all worth it. We must have watched that video close to a hundred times!” Kara laughs.
But this storybook happy ending almost didn’t happen at all, as funding was a huge hurtle Kara and Adam had to reckon with early on in the process. Looking back at the experience, Kara is grateful for the help Quest for Space provided in securing grants and other funds to make the project happen. “Being a title one school, there’s no way I could have done this on my own and I couldn’t have done it without the amazing partnership with Quest for Space because having opportunities like this, this changes lives.”
One such life changed by her experience with Quest for Space was Luzcely. As a ninth grade student, Luzcely was sure of her future, and she was sure space wasn’t in it. “At the beginning, I was so confused and had no interest in it; I would stop to take breaks because I didn’t know what was going on.” But through the process Luzcely discovered a love for engineering she didn’t know she had, and it has made all the difference. “A year ago, I wasn’t as confident as I am now. I didn’t think it was possible for me to be a scientist or an engineer or an astronaut. Now I want to either be an engineer for NASA or a biochemistry scientist.”
Luzcely’s story is one of many at HTHCV, and Adam believes getting students to believe in themselves is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of teaching. “Students walk in believing they have certain limits, and our job as teachers is helping students realize they can do more. With Quest, hopefully they take away some of that grit, perseverance, and experience which taught them they can do almost anything with teamwork.”
One thing every student walked away with is knowing that for them, the sky is not the limit anymore.