Friday profile: Five schoolgirls, a Raspberry Pi, and the International Space Station

If you think high school science subjects are still confined to the classroom, think again.

A team of students at Avila College in Mount Waverley – a suburb of the Australian city of Melbourne – recently programmed a computer, organised for it to be blasted up to the International Space Station (ISS) onboard a SpaceX rocket, and are now analysing the data they gathered. 

Year 11 students Jessica Bishop and Sashenka Justin led their team’s experiments as part of Cuberider, a national space education program for high school science students. They were assisted by three Year 9 students, Beatrice Van Rest, Amarasi Wasalatilake and Michaela Williams.

The team’s mission: to program a modified Raspberry Pi, a type of customisable computer chip, to collect data on the ISS and deliver it back to Earth for experiments – an activity that takes the concept real-world applications to a whole new level. 

“It’s interesting to know how everything works in the physical world,” Sash says. “And to find out yourself, instead of being told by a teacher in a classroom, is, I think, way cooler and way more fun.”

I chat to Bishop and Justin over Skype at 3:30pm on a school day. When I ask how school is going, they both groan, and Bishop later assures me that “napping” is a key area of interest outside schoolwork.

But these students’ love of science is never understated, and it’s a passion their school appears determined to nurture. 

“We’re encouraged to follow what we enjoy doing,” says Justin. 

“I go to an observatory in the hills with my Dad,” Bishops adds. “We’re on an outreach team and we get to look through the telescope in the big dome. Space, in general, is the best thing ever.”

Although the Raspberry Pi came already attached to a sensor-equipped piece of hardware called (appropriately enough) a SAGAN, it was up to the team to choose the experiments they wanted to conduct, and then program the device to collect the relevant data. 

“We wanted to investigate the acceleration and rotation of the ISS, so we programmed the actual device ourselves from the beginning,” says Bishop.

“It had a bunch of different sensors on it, like a UVA sensor, an infrared sensor and even a camera,” Justin explains. 

“We chose to use the gyroscope and the accelerometer. We really wanted to investigate the orbits of the ISS, because orbits are a bit of a mythical thing that none of us understand.

“We found out that the ISS is actually in a constant state of falling around the Earth, and it’s the gravity and inertia that’s keeping it that way.”

Once their program was uploaded, along with the programs of hundreds of other school students, the device was shipped off to the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, USA, to be launched into space on SpaceX’s reusable rocket, the Falcon-9.

“Ours was launched up in August, so we watched the live stream of it at like 2am, which was cool,” Justin recalls. 

The team recently received their data back from the ISS, which means they’re at analysing stage. “We’re planning on getting help from the teachers to work out the different vectors and stuff in 3D,” says Justin.

Sure enough, science is the main drawcard when it comes to predicting future careers: while Justin is keen to study engineering, Bishop loves coding and computer science.

Although both acknowledge that scientific fields are often skewed towards men, neither seems very concerned. “Science is male-dominated, but I think there’s a goal to get more women in these areas so we’re not intimidated by them,” says Bishop.

“It’s not as bad as it would’ve been 10 years ago,” Justin adds.

In truth, these students don’t seem intimidated by much. When I asked about their interest in the ISS, both confessed it was largely a circumstantial decision. 

“It’s not like we can launch our own satellite,” Bishop jokes. “That’s for next year.”

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