STEM Success Story: These Tennessee Middle Schoolers Designed a Satellite for NASA

Science and business communities come together to give Oak Ridge students an out-of-this-world education.

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Oak Ridge, TN
Courtesy of Amy Viars

With one of the highest concentrations of scientists and engineers in the state and even the country it’s no wonder a STEM-infused education system tops the list of Oak Ridge’s greatest quality-of-life assets.

“Oak Ridge has a rich history of science and industry, and the city itself has a lot to offer in terms of quality of life. Our schools have long been recognized as a deciding factor for families when determining where to live,” says Greta Ownby, executive vice president, Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce. “Education has always been extremely important in Oak Ridge. It was the backbone of Oak Ridge's formation when we were started back during the Manhattan Project.”

Commitment to Quality

Ownby says the community commitment to education that was fostered in the 1950s continues today and can be seen in initiatives such as the free Wi-Fi program, which allows students to access the internet at many businesses in town. Oak Ridge Schools provides students with laptops to access online textbooks, complete homework assignments or conduct research for term papers, but not all students have reliable access to high-speed internet service at home.

“Our businesses wanted to offer Wi-Fi to those students without home access as well as to be a place where students can go to do their homework or study online while they're between ball games or after-school activities,” Ownby says. “Our chamber office is one such place. People would not normally think of this being a place that students would go to to do their homework, but we are in close proximity to the high school, and students are able to access our wireless from the practice fields and parking lot.”

Powerful Partnerships

Ownby says the Wi-Fi initiative is just one of many ways businesses and industry support the school system. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for example, has partnered with Robertsville Middle School to develop a Cube Satellite Launch Initiative with NASA. Students have been working for several years learning and prototyping, and in March 2018 became the first middle school ever to have a proposal selected for an actual flight.

The satellite's purpose will be to take photos of forest regrowth in the Great Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, an area that sustained heavy fire damage in 2016.

"Next year, we plan to expand our current computer programming courses and new CyberPatriot competitions to include more emphasis on cybersecurity, with an environment suited for higher levels of competition," says Holly Cross, supervisor of career readiness and communications for Oak Ridge Schools.

Brain Games

Oak Ridge Schools students have also placed in numerous robotics competitions, at both middle and high school levels, with teams earning worldwide recognition in both LEGO League and FIRST Robotics World Competitions. Students also compete in Top Wrench at nearby McGhee-Tyson Air Base, which allows them to become skilled in automotive technologies. High schoolers in the automotive maintenance program receive state-of-the-art skills training that will propel them into the future of the automotive industry, working with traditional gas engines as well as green-powered cars.

“We are inspired by the enthusiasm of the students, teachers and industry leaders that make our STEM-related programs succeed. At a time when clean, lean, advanced manufacturing is again taking center stage, emphasis is being placed on the many STEM careers to which we can introduce our students right here in Anderson County,” Cross says. “We produce automobile parts for several car makers including Honda/Acura, GMC, Hyundai/Kia, and Toyota/Lexus right here in Anderson County. And we do this in very clean advanced manufacturing facilities that employ skilled machinists, welders, and mechatronics engineers. We believe it is our duty to train tomorrow’s STEM skilled task force for our local industry.

“With a continued commitment to preparing our students for meaningful life and career beyond our walls, our region will continue to be impacted by students who are well prepared to make a difference both at home and elsewhere, taking the legacy of a solid educational foundation to their future endeavors.”

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 16:08