Aurora students reach for the stars

MIDDLEBURY — In the future, astronauts exploring the parched reaches of the moon and outer space may well owe a debt of gratitude to students of Middlebury’s Aurora School. That’s because eight fifth- and sixth-graders at the small private school have developed two water recycling schemes that NASA will be reviewing — and lauding — as part of a national scholastic competition.
The 30-student Aurora School learned on March 18 that it had been picked as one of 20 finalists from throughout the country in NASA’s “Waste Limitation Management and Recycling Design Challenge.”
It’s a challenge born out of NASA’s desire to maximize use of every precious drop of water that astronauts find — or take with them — into space. It currently costs $20,000 to take a one-liter bottle of water from Earth to the International Space Station.
The challenge, open to kids in grades 5 through 8: To design a water recycling system for the unique environment of the moon. That system had to be capable of purifying water containing NASA-prescribed quantities of soap, salt, baking powder, ammonia and other undesirable ingredients.
Two groups of four Aurora students took on the challenge earlier this year under the tutelage of teacher Danielle Levine. The children proved eager, inquisitive and resourceful, Levine said on Thursday.
“I really value this project, in that they struggled and had to work with the idea that they didn’t get the right answer right away,” Levine said. “Even when we submitted (the progress report) we didn’t have a ‘right’ answer. But the problem-solving and teamwork piece for them, really using every piece to inform their next step, to me was the most valuable thing.”
Levine said the students began the challenge by learning about conditions on the moon and how they would affect explorers’ water supply.
“We found out there is a little bit of water (on the moon), but it is in the poles and mostly frozen, so the best solution is to have a water recycling system — to bring some water with you and be able to use it over and over again,” Levine explained.
Students researched a variety of ways to clean water, including filtration, distillation and using biological treatments. The two teams ultimately gravitated toward the concept of boiling water and filtering it, while at the same time capturing condensation from the boiling process.
Levine noted the students stuck with familiar devices — such as milk jugs, teapots, straws, tinfoil, canvass and filters.
Students overcame such challenges as plugging steam-escape gaps in their boiling pots and adjusting collection troughs for the condensed water.
After a few weeks of tweaking their systems and making sure the recycled water met NASA standards, the students on Feb. 21 sent the agency a progress report, shedding light on their research and problem solving techniques — including pictures and diagrams.
Knowing they were competing against middle schoolers and larger schools with sophisticated science curricula, the Aurora kids weren’t counting on making NASA’s elite 20.
“We did (the project) in the mess hall in the kitchen, with recyclables and whatever parents and friends would donate for us to use,” Levine said. “We tried to keep it as cheap as possible — that was important to our design.”
But much to their collective surprise, the Aurora students on March 18 received word from NASA they had made the cut. The next hurdle will be to submit a PowerPoint presentation and take part in a phone interview with a NASA review panel that will whittle the entries down to a top three. Entries will be judged based on creativity, water quality testing results and sustainability of the project design. The winning school submissions, announced on May 2, will win an expense-paid trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The participating local students are Marco Caliandro, Alexander Yurista, Tobias Broucke, Caitlin Doran, Marina and Amalia Herren-Lage, Janet Barkdoll and Shelby Monica.
Students are excited at the prospect of getting a first-hand look at the nation’s space program. And they are pleased that their hard work in the classroom has turned some heads at NASA.
“It makes me and probably everybody here very proud,” said Tobias Broucke, a sixth-grader. “None of us expected to be in the top 20.”
He said his favorite part of the assignment was “seeing how things came together, using materials you never would have thought of using and seeing them work well.”
Shelby Monica, also in grade six, agreed. She enjoyed testing the water to confirm it passed the purity test.
“It’s exciting,” she said of the project.
Regardless of where they place in the competition, Levine said her students are winners. The challenge has allowed them to get a hands-on experience with science that could shape future careers in space exploration.
“It was a really great learning experience for them,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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