Pell Elementary School has been chosen as one of 13 U.S. semifinalists to host a student-led “space chat” with the International Space Station (ISS) during the second half of 2018. This would be the first-ever contact for a Rhode Island public school. Pell submitted a detailed educational proposal in November supporting its bid. “We’re all thrilled and our students will be looking forward to this exceptional learning opportunity,” says Pell principal Traci Westman.

The contact is being arranged through the multinational Amateur Radio on the International Space Station ( ARISS ) project which links schools around the globe with opportunities to speak with astronauts aboard the ISS. In 2017 ARISS held 25 events with U.S. hosts and another 40 events for schools outside the U.S.

The 13 U.S. semifinalists, representing schools and educational organizations, must now submit detailed equipment plans demonstrating their ability to carry out the radio contact. Once the technical plan is approved, ARISS will then schedule student to astronaut live radio contacts as the organizations’ availability and flexibility match up with the opportunities offered by NASA.

The 13 semifinalist groups are listed alphabetically as follows:

  •  Allen Park Elementary School Fort Myers, Florida
  • Ashford School Ashford, Connecticut
  • Bishop O’Connell High School Arlington, Virginia
  • Delcastle Technical High School Wilmington, Delaware
  • Hudson Memorial School Hudson, New Hampshire
  • Kopernik Observatory & Science Center Vestal, New York
  • Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School Santa Ana, California
  • Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School Palmer, Massachusetts
  • Pearl Technology STEM Academy Peoria Heights, Illinois
  • Pell Elementary School Newport, Rhode Island
  • St. Catherine of Bologna School Ringwood, New Jersey
  • Tallmadge Community Learning Center Lancaster, Ohio
  • Valley High School Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pell Elementary’s proposal — drafted by STEM teachers Mary Nordby and Lori Delemos — demonstrated that it could integrate the contact into schoolwide educational plans and had strong potential to draw a large audience. Voice contacts with the ISS use FM amateur radio frequencies and last about 10 minutes — the average length of an orbital pass —giving approximately 20 students a chance to interact with the astronaut in a rapid fire, question and answer format.

For help with related after-school activities and event production, the school has teamed with Copernicus STEAM Learning Lab, Rhode Island STEAM, and the Newport County Radio Club which produced Rhode Island’s first space chat in May 2016 at All Saints STEAM Academy and the second space chat in November 2017 at Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick. ARISS contacts afford students an opportunity to learn first-hand from astronauts what it is like to live and work in space and about ISS research. Students also will have an opportunity to learn about satellite communication and other wireless technologies. The goal is to inspire students to pursue interests and careers in science, technology, engineering, arts/humanities, and math.

ARISS may not be able to schedule all schools on the list. The nature of human spaceflight creates regular scheduling challenges, so Pell’s proposal had to show flexibility in accommodating last minute changes in contact dates and times. Amateur radio organizations around the world, NASA, and space agencies in Russia, Europe, Canada, and Japan sponsor this educational opportunity by providing the equipment and operational support to enable direct communication between ISS crew members and students around the world via amateur radio.

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