Omaha Catholic school lands top spot in NASA student challenge
February 2, 2024
When a fractured wrist sidelined athlete Cooper Reilly, he decided to explore new extracurricular activities to challenge him. What he discovered was a competition that allowed him to compete against aspiring young scientists and engineers from across the country.
Now Cooper and eight other students from St. Wenceslaus’ STREAM (science, religion, technology, engineering and mathematics) team have been named among 30 winning teams in the nationwide TechRise Student Challenge.
Those 30 teams will have experiments they created conducted from a rocket-powered lander that scientists and engineers use to explore simulated planetary surfaces.
The St. Wenceslaus team’s winning experiment is an Infrared Water Detection Apparatus (IWDA) that detects the water content of the soil on a lunar simulation field.
The experiment will fly over a test field designed to simulate the moon’s surface at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It will collect information on the features of the simulated lunar surface to discover hidden objects.
“We are hoping for this apparatus to be considered for use on other planetary surfaces,” Cooper said.
Cooper attributes the success of the team to the Lord, who he also said planted the seed to pursue the opportunity after he learned about it from his grandfather.
Once the seed was planted, Cooper approached St. Wenceslaus principal Willam Huben about fielding a team from St. Wenceslaus to compete in the TechRise Student Challenge.
Huben agreed to the after-school club on the condition that Cooper find a teacher to sponsor it. Renee Hanson, the school’s STREAM director, agreed, but she had her own condition; there had to be enough interest to field a team of at least four students. Interest was high and the club was soon up and running.
St. Wenceslaus was the only Catholic school in the country to enter the contest. Hanson said she is particularly proud of the “R” in their team’s name.
“The ‘R’ is religion and is my favorite part of the program,” Hanson said. “Students learn about their faith in religion class and they apply it or live it in STREAM. For example, we are the only Catholic school participating in the competition so our process will include prayer, asking Father Mike (Eckley) to bless the experiment before we send it to NASA and learning about Saint Joseph of Cupertino, the patron saint of astronauts and students.”
The IWDA was one of three proposals St. Wenceslaus submitted to TechRise Student Challenge.
“Even though the nine boys were developing three different experiments, they took time to help each other with research, they reviewed each other’s work and gave quality feedback, and they all agreed that if one proposal wins, they will all stick together to build the payload,” Hanson said. “The motto was ‘If one wins, we all win.’”
When coming up with their proposals, the team met twice a week after school and did additional research on their own.
Now in the building phase of the experiment, the students will meet virtually once a week for 45 minutes with a NASA mentor and a team of NASA engineers who will guide them on building a payload, answer questions and teach the students the skills they need to construct the apparatus. NASA provides $1,500 to build the apparatus and a flight box to house it.
Hanson said that the STREAM team had been blessed with support from members of their school and parish who lent their expertise to help the boys learn skills like soldering. Hanson estimated the team would spend four to six hours a week building their apparatus.
“The team will do 100% of the project building on their own after a village has helped them master the skills needed for the project,” Hanson said.
The team will participate in a virtual showcase on May 16 and then ship off their apparatus. The launch date will depend on weather conditions, but the team will watch it virtually. The results and data collected will be mailed back to the team so they can analyze the data.
After such a successful first year, Hanson expects the after-school club to become even more popular.
“The team is extremely excited,” she said. “Many students have asked about joining the competition next year. The current team is already talking about proposal ideas for next year.”
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