Grant to open pathway to space for area students

-A A +A
By Tom Dekle

The vision from Nelson County all the way into space is quickly snapping into focus for students at Nelson County Area Technology Center (NCATC) and Nelson County High School.


But that’s just for starters, if John Sanders, Charlie Cantrill and Bill Bennett have their way.

The trio are key players in a $58,000 Perkins Reserve Fund federal grant recently awarded to the NCATC to create a new career pathway that integrates academics and technical courses to prepare students for careers in space science.

“The whole Nelson County School District is involved. Our biggest partner is the high school, but we want to involve children at all grade levels in the school district,” said Sanders, the principal at NCATC. “It’s just too powerful and too exciting to keep bottled up over here.”

He and his colleagues are planning from the outset to make sure the effort has a regional focus and will include plenty of room for other area school districts to also become involved.

“What’s cooler than space?” asked Cantrill, the information technology instructor at NCATC. “It’s a gold mine of opportunity,” added Bennett, the science department chairman at NCHS and an adjunct professor at St. Catharine College.

“Every kid I talk to, they say ‘that’s cool.’ It’s beyond us why people wouldn’t be interested,” Cantrill said. “It is a real motivating, driving factor for kids to be interested. It definitely has got the kids more interested than anything else so far.”

“Most people, when they are talking space, they are not thinking Kentucky, but we (NCATC) have already been communicating with cubes in space,” Sanders said.

The “cube-sats” to which Sanders referred are small, 10-centimeter square satellite devices that orbit earth at about 400-600 miles in space. NCATC students regularly communicate with these and other satellites, Cantrill said.

Indeed, students in Cantrill’s Technology Club have also already managed an unscheduled but verified radio contact with an astronaut aboard the international space station, using just a laptop computer and ham radio gear hooked up to a radio tower on the school’s roof. An “official” contact is planned for this spring.

Students are also learning to build and program devices used on high altitude weather balloons that ascend into near space — about 15-18 miles high — to collect weather data and run experiments, Cantrill explained.

These skills are among the many that come into play through the new initiative. The idea is to build a pathway that starts in elementary school, continues in middle school and high school, and ultimately leads to post-secondary colleges, universities and technical schools, for interested students.

Cantrill and Bennett are co-directors of the just-named Central Kentucky Space Science and Technology center being developed through the grant. Bennett is also on the board of directors of the Kentucky Science Teachers Association, for which he is Fourth District representative. The district includes Nelson and 11 surrounding counties, all of which Bennett hopes to involve in the initiative.

“As far as we know we’re the first (secondary) school (nationwide) to develop such a program,” Bennett said. “We will be a focal point for recruiting from surrounding colleges.” With the first year dedicated “strictly for planning,” developing partnerships and foundation building, the focus is firmly aimed toward the future.

Nelson County Superintendent Anthony Orr is an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative. “I’m excited about any program that can hook kids into science, technology, engineering or math education. This clearly does that,” Orr said.

The University of Kentucky and Morehead State University, key players in the Kentucky Space Grant Consortium, have also expressed keen interest in the project, as have nearby SCC and Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.

 “Maybe if we can get the kids exposure, maybe they can find their passion,” Cantrill said, mentioning much of the “space stuff” is extra-curricular right now. A goal for his technology club, which meets Tuesdays, after school, is to build its own version of the Mars rover this year, Cantrill said.

That type of hands-on experience will provide area students with a jump-start toward higher education and a foundation for a variety of technology-based careers, Bennett said.

“We want to come up with a pathway for tracing these kids when they first become interested,” and to continue developing that interest on through the various levels of school, Sanders said.

“Probably our biggest challenge is not necessarily finding the children … but starting in elementary and in a program that integrates so much academics in with technology — I think that is something pretty new and challenging,” Sanders said.

This year NCHS added physics to a curriculum that already includes five dual-credit (high school and college) and eight Advanced Placement courses. Several students have graduated with as many as 25 to 35 college credit hours, Bennett said.

“We want to build on that framework.” The plan for next year includes the addition of astronomy to the lineup. “We’re also looking at meteorology, satellite communications and solar radiation,” as topics for study, Bennett said, mentioning the vision also includes a mobile observatory for the project. A long-term goal is to “actually have a planetarium,” Bennett said.

“We don’t want kids asking, ‘Why should I learn it?’ The answer should be apparent,” Cantrill said. “We can preach math all day long but if you don’t apply it, it doesn’t stick. Apply the academic knowledge so it sticks.”

The grant is not just for space science, but for integration of science and applied technology, Sanders said. “The integration of math and science into every aspect of our programs will be an integral part of preparing our students for today’s global economy.