The Timberlane Middle School NASA SLED team: (kneeling) Melissa Isaac, Aidan Norton, Charlie Stowe, Kimberly Renick; (2nd row) Erin Goldsmith, Kate Crotty, James Lee, Konrad DeMartino; (3rd row) Taylor Foret, Abby Prosser, David Gao; (top row) Sathya Kummarapurugu, Karthik Appana, Bryce Ansari and Dhanvi Ganti.

Kimberly Renick, in her first year as a sixth-grade science teacher at Timberlane Middle School in Hopewell, will soon be traveling to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to test her students’ prototype of a satellite launcher, whose design proposal was one of 16 top-rated proposals in a NASA challenge.

The students’ accomplishment in designing and creating the prototype confirmed Renick’s belief in the value of hands-on learning. “I wanted something for my students that would bring in the real world—that they would understand they are learning for a reason,” she says.

The project has real-world grounding: NASA ran into trouble with the automatic deployment system used by the International Space Station, when it failed to release satellites when commanded, and inadvertently or prematurely released satellites.

NASA challenged teams of educators and their students to help it improve its system by designing a prototype that would then be tested on a special floor that simulates what is called “microgravity” in space. The teams will also investigate whether a manual launcher with a human interface or one that is automatically controlled works best.

For this project, Renick needed to consult with a team of five teachers before submitting an application to NASA. She reached out to some she had met at a NASA course on meteorites and asteroids at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

She told the teachers that the students had to design a prototype, and the teachers had to submit an extensive application with goals and lesson plans in two weeks. They made the deadline, and the application was accepted.

Renick exposed her students to a basic understanding of the physics the project would involve, asking the students if they thought a manual or an automatic launcher was better. Some students argued that “humans can make adjustments. If something goes wrong at the end, we can take it into account and make changes.” Others raised a counterargument: “Let’s think of football. A quarterback, no matter how good, can’t throw a football in the same spot at the same rate every time.”

She also asked her students to research launching devices, both historical and current, like pitching machines, skeet shooters, and catapults, to learn how they worked.

Seventy-five Timberlane students came up with concepts for an automatic launching device. Renick narrowed the students’ designs to 15. Those 15 were submitted by Bryce Ansari, Karthik Appana, Dhanvi Ganti, David Gao, James Lee, Konrad DeMartino, Abby Prosser, Melissa Isaac, Taylor Foret, Aidan Norton, Charlie Stowe, Sathya Kammaraporugu, Erin Goldsmith, Kate Crotty and Caileigh Ross.

TMS students with SLED.

She and her teacher teammates evaluated their designs’ strengths and weaknesses using Google Hangouts. “We narrowed it to the one most reliable and realistic design we could submit along with the application of 44 pages, including lesson plan, outreach plan, safety procedures, and how we were going to share the information the students and we were learning,” Renick says.

Once their designs were selected, the students had to build a prototype. This process was an important learning experience, but not so easy for sixth graders, who had to work in the classroom with tools from Renick’s garage, learning to use saws and drills as well as hands-on engineering techniques in the process.

To get it done in time, students gave up time before and after school, during lunch, and over weekends. Often Renick would find out at lunch that the students needed something for the prototype, and she would run out to Pennington Hardware during her prep period.

Renick divided her students into three teams who competed to create a viable final prototype. As the teams worked from prototypes of cardboard and hot glue to ones made of plywood with nuts and bolts, she says, “each prototype got successively better and more durable.”

Something that was perhaps surprising among sixth graders happened a week before the deadline. The students looked at one another’s prototypes and realized that each one had a strength that the others didn’t. So they stopped competing, “and came together and built one successful device that can mimic the launch of a satellite within the parameters that NASA gave us,” Renick says.

Progress wasn’t always easy. Something would go wrong with a prototype, and the students would slow down. But then somebody would get another idea and they would get back to work. They researched, brainstormed solutions, created designs and prototypes, then would have to go back to redesign.

Renick is proud of her students. “It was made by sixth graders, not AP high school kids, because they had the drive, motivation and willingness to persevere to get it done,” she says.

The project has also helped the students learn about the value of learning from experts. They met with Erik Tornegard, Hopewell Valley Central High School’s engineering teacher, who gave feedback on their design.

Renick, who has taught for 22 years, including 15 at Tollgate Elementary School, brought in other experts as well. She asked Bijan Sepahpour, professor of mechanical engineering at The College of New Jersey’s School of Engineering, whose son she had taught in third grade, if he would be willing to mentor her.

Other community members who helped guide the students included John Kline, a group leader at Research Support Instruments and member of the NASA GOES Flight Project; Shea Wood, support equipment engineer for Navy Air Systems Command; and Joseph Schiavino, manager at Satellite Fleet Planning, SES.

Sepahpour, writing in an email that he is always concerned about how some of these challenges end up being “competition among parents,” says this was not true of Renick’s sixth graders. “It has been quite refreshing to see how this particular project has been truly completed within the extent of help NASA should permit for such projects/teams,” he writes.

Noting what a privilege it was for him to witness the team’s success on such a challenging project, he writes, “The opportunity for the young force of our great nation to see the rewards of persistence, some research, application of basic science, and hard (and smart) work is quite valuable. Equally important, the role of dedicated educators in development of such a force should never be underestimated or undervalued.”

At present, the prototype is at the Johnson Space Center, where it is being judged by NASA scientists for safety and fulfillment of NASA specifications. When Renick and her team get to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, they will run the prototype through ever more rigorous tests designed to push the design to the limit. She and the other teachers will have to try to find solutions to any problems that come up in the testing.

When Renick and her team are testing the prototype in the NASA environment, the students will be able to watch the testing on live stream and text her suggestions and concerns.

Renick’s students shared their work at the Hopewell Science Fair on March 24 and hope to make a presentation to all the sixth graders at Timberlane Middle School when they get the device back. Renick also hopes to be able to either present or put up a presentation at the local library “to get other kids in the community interested in science that is happening or in space exploration.”

“When it is all over and I can finally breathe, I am off to find another opportunity,” Renick says, noting that the kids are already asking, “What’s next?”

Renick was a competitive gymnast growing up, only attending school until noon from sixth to eleventh grade, then spending eight hours in the gym. Before she got injured, she was rated 21st in the nation and was on her way to the Olympics. She earned a bachelor of science in psychology with a minor in education at Portland State University, then a teaching certificate at Warner Pacific College, and a master’s in curriculum and instruction for STEM education at Concordia University.

Renick, a teacher for 22 years, spent 21 years as an elementary school teacher (including 15 years at Tollgate, then a year in Bear Tavern’s STEM program), working with gifted and talented, basic skills and bilingual students. “My passion is teaching. I never understood why I was learning math, but it became clear to me when it was put in real situations. I am bringing in the why of doing this so my students understand the importance behind it.”

Jennifer Norton’s son Aidan was a member of the prototype team. She says Renick and the student team spent probably 12 weeks on the project. She suggests that the project transformed how her son views science.

“There is so much to explore, so much to question,” she says. “It opens up the idea of what is possible. It is hands-on, where you are building, analyzing, and figuring out how you can test boundaries and limits to get to outcomes.”