Students connect with astronauts

Photo by Chea Waters Evans
Nik Blasius, a sixth grader at Charlotte Central School, talks last week with astronauts Drew Feustel and Scott Tingle while they are aboard the International Space Station.

The Charlotte Central School multi-purpose room, the site of decades of school plays, middle school dances, and first-grade gym classes, was transformed into a portal to the galaxy as students videoconferenced with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Last week, as part of NASA’s ISS Educational Downlink program, 175 middle school students plus teachers, school staff, parents and community members gathered to watch a live conversation between Charlotte sixth graders and two astronauts orbiting Earth.

NASA’s mission control checked in with the astronauts with a thrilling, “This is Houston, are you ready for the event?”

“We are ready for the event,” astronauts Drew Feustel and Scott Tingle responded.

Co-principal Jen Roth led Charlotte’s mission control for the day. “This is Charlotte Central School in the Champlain Valley School District. How you hear me?”

Feustel replied: “We hear you loud and clear,” to cheers and applause from the audience.

The connection was facilitated by the Regional Educational Television Network in Burlington.
Sixth graders at the school have been working for three months on an interdisciplinary unit for their science and social studies classes, focusing on the International Space Station.

Teachers Christa Duthie-Fox and Tasha Grey incorporated lessons in social studies and science into their curriculum, and students have studied varied topics from geography to combustion through the lens of the experiments on the ISS.

During the downlink presentation, sixth-grade students were able to ask questions directly to Feustel and Tingle, who are nearing the end of a six-month stint aboard the space station. Student-crafted questions were submitted to the astronauts ahead of the presentation, and the students who asked the questions were chosen because their question was selected at random using a common classroom method with sticks.

Taylor Marchand was excited to ask her question to the astronauts, but very nervous, she said. “First of all, I was in front of the whole school, and I was meeting someone pretty famous and asking a questions to someone who travels the world every day.”

Her question prompted one of the most fun responses from the astronauts: How does microgravity affect your daily activities like sleeping or rinsing your toothbrush?

Tingle gave a demonstration of how he rinses his toothbrush with a tiny bit of water and wipes it clean with a cloth, which resulted in the floating escape of a droplet of water. “We’ll have to clean that up later,” he said, as it drifted away.

This experience made an impression on Marchand and her mother, as well. “My mom and I both thought it was pretty cool,” she said. Connecting with the ISS was a fun experience, she said, because “it’s more hands on, and you really get to experience and feel things.”

This was the educators’ goal from the outset. Champlain Valley School District instructional coach and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador Allan Miller facilitated the connection between CCS and the space station. Traditionally, he said, astronaut videoconference with schools and classes as a one-time special event. This experience was different for both the astronauts and the students, he said, because the students are studying what the astronauts’ experiments and life on the space station, and were able to integrate the ISS experience into their classroom. This, he said, supplied the true educational value of the conversation with the astronauts.

“The downlink wasn’t going to be the most important piece of learning, just part of a unit,” Miller said. “Hopefully [the students] felt they had a genuine audience.” He said if a student thinks, “I’m creating this for my teacher,” it doesn’t have as much meaning as it does if the students reach outside the classroom.

Grey, who teaches sixth grade social studies, sat with her class as the students took turns walking up to the podium and asking their questions. “I actually got teary-eyed,” she said afterward. “I think that students love any opportunity to do genuine work that has real-world value, pushes their thinking, and allows them to work collaboratively.”

The students are now working with RETN to create short films based on their work studying experiments the astronauts are currently doing on the ISS. Among answering questions about starting a human civilization on another planet (possible and necessary) and what it feels like to sleep in microgravity (nice, because there are no pressure points), Feustel and Tingle showed students their combustion integrated rack, which students have been studying and trying to replicate at school. The rack has flames in a pressure vessel and is used in an advanced combustion microgravity experiment, which studies how flames react in microgravity.

In studying what the astronauts aboard the space station studied, Grey said: “It was powerful to not have the answers to all the questions — what average person knows about coarsening of particles in metal? Students naturally used a large variety of resources to find answers: dictionaries were being pulled out, different teachers were consulted with, videos were pulled up, and the list goes on.”

The students were starry-eyed at the excitement of talking to real astronauts who were actually in outer space, and many adults in the room were misty-eyed at the significance of the opportunity.

Existential issues were addressed on the other end of the videoconference as well. When asked what his favorite view from space was, Tingle replied: “The best views are the ones when I’m flying over home, and family and friends.”

The video of the conversation between the students and astronauts is online at

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