While most elementary school students in Los Angeles were lining up single file in preparation for recess or lunch Monday afternoon, students at Vermont Avenue Elementary School were assembling for a different reason: They were about to converse with an astronaut at the International Space Station as part of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station Program.
Vermont Elementary is the first elementary school in L.A. to participate in a contact with the ISS via ARISS. The idea to apply for the contact came from the Young Scientists Program, an offshoot of the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Joint Educational Project, a service-learning initiative that partners USC students with local community organizations. YSP comprises 24 teaching assistants, undergraduate USC students with STEM majors who assist with science lessons and activities at seven schools in the USC Family of Schools.
In preparation for the call, each of the school’s approximately 270 third- through fifth-grade students wrote two questions for Italian astronaut and ISS commander Luca Parmitano, who has performed 45 similar educational contacts since 2013. A judging panel of YSP staff selected 20 of the student questions for the contact.
Facilitating the contact was no simple feat, said Rita Barakat, the assistant director of YSP. The application process takes nearly a year and resembles a grant application. It asks why the school is deserving of the collaboration and how the contact would benefit the community.
“We really talked a lot about the things that we already do at YSP, the fact that we’re targeting underrepresented groups in the Los Angeles Unified School District and trying to encourage them to pursue STEM education, realizing that science is not a scary thing,” Barakat said. “[Science is] not, you know, difficult; it’s not just for some people — it can be for everyone.”
YSP’s first application for a contact, submitted in 2017, was turned down. However, with help from local radio experts who had the proper equipment for the contact and were familiar with the application process, the program’s second attempt was approved.
Barakat said discussions with Vermont Elementary staff and preparation for the contact began in April. Barakat spent the summer preparing as well, amending YSP curriculum with a combination of “some quality space education, a little bit of ham radio and a little bit of ISS-specific information” and getting a ham radio license.
Barakat said she believed the contact would help the Vermont Elementary students put a human face to what they’ve been learning about space exploration.
“It is a pretty indescribable thing when the static fades away, and you actually get that clear reception, and the pass has really started,” Barakat said. “I think to see that age group and the way that they will be excited — that will be exciting for me.”
ARISS, an international organization devoted to arranging these contacts between schools around the world and astronauts aboard the ISS, has set up hundreds of educational contacts to date with schools on six continents. Most of ARISS’s members, including those who helped with Vermont Elementary’s contact, are knowledgeable volunteers with an interest in space, radio and science education.
Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast, STEM program manager at JEP, said the preparation leading up to the event was a significant undertaking. Before the contact, YSP staff coordinated the submission and selection of the questions and held a dress rehearsal of the event the Friday before to ensure that the timing of the questions was feasible.
The event’s execution is especially important given the timely nature of the contact — the ISS travels at an estimated 17,000 miles per hour and was only within range of the school for an estimated eight minutes, so the Q&A had to begin promptly.
“For me, it still baffles me that we’re able to connect to someone that’s in outer space, moving on the International Space Station, which actually will go above us eight times a day,” Kast said. “We can contact them for literally less than 10 minutes … The logistics of all that, just — it’s mind-blowing.”
Aundrea Marin, a fifth-grader at Vermont Avenue Elementary who was among the 10 selected to speak to Parmitano, asked him about his family. Marin said she was able to draw parallels between the astronaut’s answers and her own family.
“[Parmitano] ended up kind of relating to what I’m about in my family because he brought up his two daughters and his wife,” Marin said. “My dad, he has my little sister plus my mom, so knowing that if my dad was up there — and [Parmitano] said that he misses them so much, and if my dad was up there, I would miss him a lot too.”
ARISS educational ambassador Darrell Warren said the value of the contact lies in its interactivity, a component of education that he said is often talked about but needs to be implemented more widely.
“It becomes a real thing for them — it turns it into something real,” Warren said. “And I think it sort of broadens their view of what they are able to do, you know, because you talked to space as a kid — that’s pretty cool.”