AVON — St. Agnes School may become the site of the nation’s space program if it continues to produce the results it recently did in an international contest.
Four teams from the school were among 18 finalists in the Space Day 2004 Design Challenges, a competition that involved 2,000 students from 23 states, as well as students from Canada, Taiwan and Germany. According to www.space.org, Space Day is sponsored by more than 75 partners, including Lockheed Martin Corp., the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Va., and NASA. According to its organizers, the contest is designed to advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.
More than 300 teams were charged with designing space-exploration vehicles, and two St. Agnes teams — one consisting of fifth-graders and the other of sixth-graders — took overall honors in the grades 4-5 and grades 6-8 categories, respectively. The teams were aided in their efforts by the school staff, including Melissa Savino, St. Agnes secretary and technology coordinator.
"The Space Day Design Challenges not only promote an interdisciplinary approach to learning in technology, science, math and language arts, but also the opportunity for students to learn how to work cooperatively to solve problems," Savino said in a press statement.
The two teams that won overall design awards traveled to Washington, D.C., May 6 to receive their awards, and met a number of astronauts, including retired U.S. Sen. John Glenn, the first American to travel in space in 1962.
The fifth-grade team that won an overall design award was called "Team Solar System Searchers." The team designed a robot prototype named "Gus" to explore the planet Venus, according to team members Danielle Sancilio and Jacob Reichert. The Searchers also included Maggie Lloyd, Amy Martin, Emilie Mulligan, Max Klotz, Brian Witherspoon, Samantha Bennett and Christopher Mitschow.
During an interview at St. Agnes, Jacob noted his team made a calculated decision to study Venus.
"We figured a lot of people would be doing Mars since they sent the rover there," Jacob said of NASA’s current Martian mission.
He and Danielle said that Gus could scoop up samples of Venusian dirt; monitor the temperature on Venus; and boasted cameras to take pictures of the planet. She also noted that Glenn told her and her fellow teammates "congratulations," and signed T-shirts for them.
Both students said their appetite for learning more math, science and technology was whetted by their trip to Washington.
"I would like to actually be one of the people who would design the rovers that would go to the planets," Jacob said.
"I like building," Danielle added.
The sixth-grade team that won an overall design award was named "KAKJEMES," a word made up of the initials of its members’ first names: Katie Huber, Alyssa Marcy, Katie Cochrane, Jill Emmighausen, Ellen Hecht, Mary Hanchar, Emily Savino and Suzanne Grant. For their project, the girls created a hovercraft prototype to explore Saturn. Called "Titan," the model featured a flashlight; an ice scraper for Saturn’s surface; two vacuums to suck up samples of Saturn’s gas; a thermometer; and a wind vane. Jill said her team chose to design a hovercraft for a practical reason.
"Saturn is made mostly of gas and ice so you wouldn’t be able to drive around it," she said.
She and her teammate Suzanne said they both enjoyed their trip to Washington.
"My favorite part was seeing the other projects that won," Suzanne said, noting that she liked how one team from Illinois designed a grappling claw for planetary exploration.
Both girls said they might consider careers in space exploration.
"It would actually be fun to design something to actually go up to space," Jill said.
“I think it would be fun to work in mission control when they actually send something into space,” Suzanne said. She added that she was chosen for a simulated communications team during a school outing to a science museum because “they say I have a big mouth!”
Fifth-graders Johanna Hanchar and Kevin Hooker were on one of the two other St. Agnes teams that made it to the competition’s final round. Their team designed a vehicle to explore Mars, they said.
"It was a lot of fun, and it was very interesting, and it got me more into space," Kevin said of working on his team’s project.
"I thought it was a really fun project, and we learned all about Mars, and we learned all about making things," Johanna added.
Sixth-graders Matt Stevens and D.J. Welch were on the other team that made it to the final round, and noted they created "The Skywalker" to explore the planet Pluto. Matt wrote a fictional story about the group’s project. He added that his group’s members overcame challenges almost as difficult as traveling to Pluto.
"When we were building, everyone was sort of yelling at each other," he said.
But D.J. noted that the team members reconciled.
"When push came to shove, we did all our stuff, and we turned it in," he said, as Matt nodded his head in agreement.
"In the end, we did pull together, and it all worked out," Matt said.
All the St. Agnes students participating in Space Day made a commendable effort in the competition, according to Gerald Benjamin, principal.
"Certainly, this has been a special salute to our students’ achievements and their cooperative spirit in working with each other," he said.