NOAA scientists engage students at Destination SPACE Satellite Week

August 15, 2019

In July 2018, 25 high school students arrived at the tree-lined campus of the University of North Carolina Asheville. They were younger than the typical students on a university campus, but their task was taller: in just five days, they would build and launch their own miniature satellites on weather balloons.

Students designed “Jiggy Bot”robots, developing technical skills like soldering.

These ambitious satellite developers had arrived at Destination SPACEoffsite link (Satellite Program for Aerospace-Centered Education) Satellite Week, a program supported through the Asheville Museum of Science. Destination SPACE cultivates long-term interest in STEM by providing hands-on remote sensing opportunities for public high school students. Throughout the week, NOAA scientists from the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) joined in to share their knowledge and their stories with this group of future satellite experts.

Each day of Satellite Week incorporated a presentation by mentors in the field of remote sensing and a work period in which the student would complete a mission. Missions included building and launching their own “ThinSats,” small satellites capable of transmitting data from an extreme low earth orbit. This technology brings satellites out of the realm of billion-dollar enterprises and into the classroom, giving students a chance to develop satellite hardware, test sensor components, analyze data, and launch an actual payload. In this case, students launched ThinSats tethered to weather balloons. 

At Destination SPACE Satellite Week 2018, students built their own miniature satellites and launched them on weather balloons.
At Destination SPACE Satellite Week 2018, students built their own miniature satellites and launched them on weather balloons. (Annette Hollingshead/NOAA)

The students ranged from eighth to 12th grade, and over 80% of them had qualified for scholarships based on financial need. In addition to building ThinSats, they also built and raced “Jiggy Bots” (homemade robots that use different components to light up, vibrate, and move), toured a solar array, and learned to solder. Students gained hands-on experience operating remote sensing instruments and used data for an applied project, getting a taste of the skills that employers in the remote sensing industry — like NOAA — are looking for.

Through a series of presentations and hands-on learning activities, NCEI scientists exposed students to their work. Mary Wohlgemuth, the director of NCEI, and Mike Tanner, director for NCEI’s Center for Weather and Climate, talked about the importance of satellites and STEM as a whole. NOAA scientists joined a lineup of mentors that included retired NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham, who clocked 308 hours in space and earned NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal. 

Over the course of the week, students at Destination SPACE Satellite Camp learned about the value of Earth-monitoring satellites and practiced the same skills used by professional satellite developers. NCEI’s outreach at Satellite Week helped put faces to the field of remote sensing, aiming to inspire and empower students to become the next generation of STEM leaders.