Hartselle students win national NASA competition
By Audrey Johnson
For the Enquirer
HARTSELLE — A high-altitude balloon will carry an experiment designed by Hartselle Junior High students into the stratosphere this summer.
Hartselle Junior High’s “Climate Crew,” made up of eighth graders Lyla Crouch, Chloe Cutshall, Addison Faulk and Claire Joseph, is the only school group in Alabama to win in NASA TechRise, a national competition aimed at engaging students in science, technology and space exploration.
“These four girls are top-notch students in every way,” said Hartselle Junior High School Principal Tina Kimbrell. “Not just as pre-engineers, but just as students with great character and great work ethics. I was not surprised that they worked hard and won this opportunity, but I am very excited to see what they do going forward.”
The NASA TechRise challenge, in collaboration with educational group Future Engineers, chose 60 winners from sixth to 12th grade schools across the country. Winning teams earned $1,500 to fund their experiments and research.
The Hartselle team’s experiment will collect data on acid rain levels in the atmosphere, and a device students are building will measure the levels. The device will be the payload in the balloon that will launch in Arizona this summer. A high-altitude balloon will carry the payload up to 70,000 feet in the air to the stratosphere. The balloon will stay there between four and six hours before landing.
Cheyenne Moses, who teaches robotics, computer science and pre-engineering at Hartselle Junior High, entered three groups of students in the NASA-sponsored competition after using the challenge as curriculum for her pre-engineering class. “The Climate Crew” came out on top.
“I had to keep it a secret from them for about a whole month,” Moses said of being told in advance. “Once I found out, we brought the whole class down, and they watched the live announcement. They had speeches from people at NASA and all sorts of places.”
The team meets weekly with engineers from NASA over Zoom and completed various modules needed to build their payload. These mentorships helped the students learn skills like CircuitPython coding and soldering.
“It’s been a lot of trial and error,” said Faulk. “We’ll try something, and we’ll be able to get it on the Zoom call, but it’s a whole different story having to do it on our own. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we don’t.”
Faulk and Crouch used VEXcode for programming in robotics but said CircuitPython is like learning a different language. Their code will run the whole experiment and calibrate sensors to collect data every 500 feet the balloon rises.
Crouch said the national recognition coupled with professional mentorship has been a huge confidence boost.
“They don’t just do it for us,” Crouch said. “They help us understand.”
Their code must be completed Friday to start testing for errors. When completed, the team will assemble their hardware into a rectangular box about the size of a water bottle. It will be outfitted with several sensors and a camera.
“I thought this was really fun because I’ve been able to learn so much new stuff,” Cutshall said. “Instead of sitting at a desk and reading about it or watching videos about it, we actually get to do it.”
In addition to Moses’ pre-engineering class, schools across Hartselle City have other STEM focused classes like computer science, robotics, agriscience, manufacturing and health sciences.
Students like Cutshall and Joseph hope to pursue careers in architecture. They believe pre-engineering has helped them hone their math, science and problem-solving skills. In Faulk’s case, the NASA TechRise challenge has added new possibilities to her dream job list.
“My whole life I’ve wanted to be a farm animal vet,” Faulk said. “But I’ve also always been really good at the coding and building. I’ve always been an engineering mind. I thought I wanted to be a vet, but this has kind of changed that for me.”
Moses feels grateful her students have had this opportunity and continues to enter her classes in other Future Engineers challenges.
“I really didn’t do anything,” Moses said. “I gave them the materials. I said, ‘Here’s the challenge. Go for it.’ They did all the research. They came up with all the components. They figured it out.”