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April 6, 2012 > Student project blasts off to space

Student project blasts off to space

By Miriam G. Mazliach

For decades, scientists have been expanding our knowledge and vision of the universe. And, closer to home, a similar quest gave a group of industrious high school students from Fremont Christian School (FCS), the impetus to put their own ideas into action.

Thirteen students enrolled in Space Engineering, an elective class for grades 9-12, taught by Mr. Matthew Miller, recently encountered their own version of space travel. Their project, an innovatively designed micro-robot, was placed onboard the Ariane 5 ES rocket and launched into space, destined for the International Space Station (ISS).

The blast-off occurred on the morning of March 23 (March 22 evening PST), at the French Guiana Space Center located in the jungles of northeast South America.

A number of months ago, FCS students were invited to work with Valley Christian School (San Jose), after learning of that school's participation in a space endeavor last year. Valley Christian partnered with NanoRacks of Houston, Texas, a firm that develops modular lab equipment and contracts with NASA to send science research projects to the International Space Station.

Two other schools joined their collaborative effort, Whittier Christian and Faith Christian Academy in Coalinga. To make it more financially feasible, each of the four schools was responsible for paying a portion of the "rental fee," approximately $10,000 apiece, for space on the rocket that transported their projects to the International Space Station.

Many stepped up to help financially including Mr. Henryk Sloma who donated half the participation fee which includes launch and return of the project. Additionally, Mr. David Mendez, of Mendez Construction, parent of one of the students, underwrote the cost of the project's components.

During the summer, students began their project in earnest and according to one of the class members, Dongyub "Mike" Ryu, "We brainstormed, designed and built the micro-robot into a doable prototype."

Students worked for over five months to construct the robot - at school, home, weekends, evenings, and even during vacations. Their teacher says, "Students had to learn software, mechanics, electrical engineering and even public relations. They actually picked up a lot by themselves, and over time they became very adept at these types of projects and what experiments to do. It's amazing to see what they've accomplished."

Ryu explains, "The best description is that the project is a Micro-Cube Lab with a Micro-Robot, riding on a grid of Teflon and computer disk drive rods." Another classmate, Priya Natarajan adds, "It's designed to move across a plane in an x-y direction."

The class chose a fitting name for their micro-robot, PI, an acronym for "Programmable Intelligence."

PI's dimensions are only 15 millimeters x 21 millimeters x 21 millimeters. "The basis of the experiment," says Ryu, "is to see how the micro-robot would behave in a micro-gravity (negative-gravity) environment. The Space Station's gravity is one millionth of that of Earth's, so if there's no gravity; how will PI work and be controlled in space?"

Student Micaehla May emphasizes their supposition, "We think PI will work because it's low friction; in space, objects float, so it's easier to move."

Miller, who has an electrical engineering and physics background, explains that the reason anything on Earth moves is because that object overcomes other forces which act on that object. "The usual forces that an object has to overcome are gravity, friction, and someone or something pushing or pulling on that object. However, on the ISS, gravity is negligible for PI. There are no other objects pushing or pulling on it, so that means that the only real force we need to overcome is friction," says Miller.

Not everything went smoothly during the development process. May says there was an initial setback. "I accidentally dropped the robot. It set us back a day but we reconstructed it and replaced some components. So, it actually made it function better!"

FCS finished their project January 29, with just five hours to spare. The next step was to bubble wrap and Fed Ex their "precious cargo" to Valley Christian, where it was integrated with the other three schools' projects on cement mix, ferrofluid and plant growth in space. Next stop was NanoRacks in Houston for re-testing.

On January 31, NASA did a final "shake test" to ensure that everything stayed in place and on February 1, the micro-robot was sent to French Guiana.

With the successful launch of the Ariane 5 ES rocket on March 23, the journey is expected to take between 10-15 days to reach the International Space Station. Besides transporting a payload of scientific experiments, the rocket is primarily a re-supply vehicle for the six astronauts, from different nations, now living on board.

Once the experiments arrive, the astronauts will activate them for 30 days of continuous use and download data for the students to analyze every three days. The project should return to Earth in late April, riding with astronauts back to Siberia from the International Space Station.

"We'll be able to track and follow PI, to see how it does with commands that we gave it," says student Liana Simpson. "If corrections need to be made, we can tweak our program a little bit."

Miller adds, "The project has a camera installed so that we can also check the status of actual movement versus expected movement."

The FCS students are writing a technology report and will await data from the ISS to see if the project functions as they thought. Information will be posted on their blog at

Ryu sums up the experience, saying, "The hardest thing is being able to apply what you've learned to make it work in real life. We encountered it at an earlier age by doing this project, more than you would have, to this magnitude in life," declares Ryu.

FCS Space Engineering students who participated in the PI project include: Kyle Diep, Peter Liu, Micaehla May, Madison Mendez, Micah Morris, Priya Natarajan, Dongyub "Mike" Ryu, Manraj Sekhon, Savraj Sekhon, Jasmine Shin, Liana Simpson, Erin Tang and Zaneta Zhao.

Interested students apply in advance and are interviewed for the Space Engineering elective class. Teacher Matthew Miller meets with the FCS's Superintendent, Dr. Tricia Meyer, to choose a team of students who will work best together. "I'm just excited that while we have a high school of 210 students, we have been able to provide this unique opportunity like Space Engineering," states Superintendent Meyer.

To follow the progress of the PI project visit:
Students' Blog:

For more information about Fremont Christian School, visit:

Photo Captions:

"Classroom team photo with teacher Matthew Miller (left)." (Photo by Miriam G. Mazliach)

Inset Photo: "The micro-robot PI" (Photo by Micaehla May)

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