Former astronaut visits La Conner robotics class

November 20, 2018

LA CONNER — A growing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum has more students thinking in terms of rocket science and what it will take to reach new frontiers such as Mars.

For La Conner Middle School’s first robotics class, it also brought an astronaut into their classroom.

Navy Capt. Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper visited the class Wednesday to provide real-life insight into research being conducted by members of the class.

“I’ve been on two space shuttle missions and done five space walks,” she told students at the start of class.

Robotics teacher Vincent Cicotte, who also teaches science and aviation at the middle school, said the 19-student robotics class will compete for the first time in Everett on Dec. 9.

The class is part of the international FIRST Lego League program, which encourages students to think big about ways to solve the world’s leading problems using STEM principles, according to its website.

The program is a partnership between the Lego company and the nonprofit FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

At La Conner Middle School, the FIRST Lego League robotics class is an elective available to all students in grades six through eight.

Stefanyshyn-Piper shared stories with students Wednesday about her experience as one of the few women in her classes and career — including as a Navy diver and as a NASA astronaut.

Of 19 students in the class, two are girls.

Stefanyshyn-Piper also described the moments leading up to entering zero gravity in space and when she returned to Earth.

“Once the rockets light, you’re going up,” she said. “It takes about eight and a half minutes to get into orbit, and that’s a fast eight and a half minutes.”

The robotics class has chosen to research and attempt to solve the issue of bone density loss in space as the research component of this year’s FIRST Lego League challenge.

The challenge will also involve programming a robot to accomplish a mission — the subject of the Dec. 9 competition.

The overall theme for the league this year is “Into Orbit,” according to the website.

The human body can experience many changes when in space, and scientists continue to probe what causes those changes, how long lasting the effects may be, whether they are troubling for overall health and whether there are ways to prevent them.

Retired astronaut Scott Kelly — who gained fame in 2016 after setting the record for the longest time a person has spent in space by completing a yearlong mission at the International Space Station — is among those contributing to the latest science on that front.

NASA is comparing changes in Kelly’s body following his space mission to the body of his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, to learn more about the impacts of longer-term space travel. A space mission is typically six months.

“We are at the beginning of our understanding of how spaceflight affects the molecular level of the human body,” NASA’s web page for the study states.

Stefanyshyn-Piper said her bone density was examined before and after her second 16-day mission into space, and the doctors saw no change.

For astronauts spending longer periods of time in space, NASA has found they can lose about 1 percent of their bone density per month. That’s about the same as bone density losses experienced by the elderly.

Stefanyshyn-Piper said bone density loss is not something you feel, but it can make your bones more brittle and likely to break. It’s a concern for astronaut safety as longer missions are being considered — especially with eyes currently on exploring Mars.

“You don’t want to fly six months to Mars and then trip on the ladder when you get there and break your leg,” she said.

Students shared with Stefanyshyn-Piper some of their ideas for combating the issue, ranging from wearing magnetic boots to allow for exercise to building a room on board a shuttle where gravity could be created.

Stefanyshyn-Piper encouraged them to keep brainstorming and not give up on their goals.

“The first time I applied (to NASA’s Space Program) I got a letter back that said ‘Thank you very much, but please try again,’” she said. “And so I did. And it was the second time that I got selected.”

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