Twelve kids, two advisors, one goal: Build a legitimate space program. Over the last 3 years, OVS middle schoolers have done just that with their Project X elective.
Each year, they’ve built a weather balloon and capsule and launched it into near space, capturing photos and video of the curvature of the Earth along the way. This May brought a new achievement: breaking the 100K mark. Launched from the OVS Lower Campus athletic field, the Project X capsule traveled 100,543 feet into the atmosphere before returning to Earth and landing near Piru Creek.
This mission’s success can be marked in many ways. The middle schoolers sent their payload one-third of the way to outer space. They completed scientific experiments on the atmosphere’s effect on solar power generation. And they did so by successfully putting into action the skills they’ve learned in the technology lab — from creating complicated Excel spreadsheets to soldering solar panels
They even got on a first-name basis with the folks at the Federal Aviation Administration.Not surprisingly, the students take Project X seriously. They carefully select new members each year, and have to sign a contract promising they will fulfill their obligations to the team. Their project advisors — alum Jason Goldman (“Mission Director”) and Assistant Head of School Mike Mahon (“Commander of Space Operations”) — set a somber but motivational tone for the students.
Rather than tell the kids what to do, Mahon and Goldman presented a research packet, and “an idea large enough that the students had a ton of freedom in how they solve the problem,” Mahon said. “The job of the teacher became finding resources and presenting them in kind of a cone shape, where a single starting point could lead to a variety of end products,” Mahon added. “The number of directions the students could take the project was limited by their imagination rather than the scope of our prompt.”
Project X has no step-by-step guides, no textbooks. It is a truly student-led project. That was true in challenges, successes, and failures. Last fall, the students decided to include a solar panel experiment in the payload. So they soldered a small panel to a multimeter in the capsule, in order to gauge the energy output as it traveled through the atmosphere. Mahon and Goldman recognized a problem fairly early on — how would the students get the readings if they couldn’t see the multimeter?
“We wanted them to figure it out, but at the same time we weren’t going to solve it for them,” Mahon said. “Eventually they figured out on their own that they needed a camera to see what the readings were!” As launch day approached, students tied up loose ends and communicated with relevant government agencies to get the green light. Mahon explained that each year, the FAA and local airports can have different protocols for granting permission for things like Project X. But again, it’s on the students to make it happen. That includes students picking up the phone and being able to clearly convey their mission objectives and submit technical specifications and other details.
“Regulatory bodies sometimes scare makers out of projects,” Mahon said. “But the kids learned they (regulatory bodies) were pretty supportive, actually. They actually wanted to help! … The kids learned that if you ask, you’re probably going to get help.”
After pulling an all-nighter in the tech lab, the big day finally came. The whole school eagerly awaited the return of the capsule, which was found on a bluff above Piru Creek — one that required the Project X crew to utilize Outdoor Education skills like trail blazing and GPS navigation. The solar panel experiment was intact, and proved that solar output is, in fact, better above the clouds. The 2017 Project X mascot, National Park plush doll named Buddy Bison, also returned in one piece.
As Project X graduates five 8th-grade team members this year, those who remain are already thinking up new, more complex experiments.
Setting very lofty goals is intentional, and an integral part of Project X. “People work so much harder to achieve something when they are not sure their desired results are possible. Failures in this environment are joyful. There is no pressure to be successful when doing something no one else is doing. If we were doing something more pedestrian like making a lamp, the weight of results changes,” said Mahon. “The failure to make your lamp turn on is crushing because lamps are simple. Anyone can make a lamp light up. If you fail to recover your weather balloon, you still feel accomplished because your goals are so high.”
Lessons learned in Project X go beyond learning to build and launch a payload. They learned to set objectives, manage teams, think above themselves, solve difficult problems, and improvise on the fly. They learned how to apply lessons they’d learned in core classes — science, math, physics, computers, even history and English — in real life applications.
“It’s cool to get neat photos and be engaged in a project, but the coolest thing was that Project X empowered them to do stuff like this in the future,” Mahon said. “They shouldn’t be afraid to pursue something big. Because look what can happen if you do.”
For more photos, click here: Project X 2017