grow. : grow - Edition 4 - May 2017
16 | TECHNOLOGY ISSUE 4 | 2017 THE SPACE RACE ENTERS THE CLASSROOM Solange Cunin is using the emerging private space travel industry to teach science to thousands of Australian high school students. T he date 31 May 2012 marks an important moment for Solange Cunin. It was late in the night and, with a dense cloud of sleepiness hanging over her head, she tuned into the live stream of the launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Dragon’s launch was an historic one. It was the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station (ISS). Only four government organisations had visited the ISS before: the US, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency. The suspense was palpable seconds before the countdown, but that was overshadowed by the high euphoria among the technical team members when Dragon successfully launched into space. Cunin felt that triumph just as strongly even though she was miles away in Sydney. “I remember every detail of that moment – from my pyjamas and my bedspread to how I felt. When I saw the rocket launch, it hit me like a tonne of bricks: how powerful and amazing humans can be and all that they can achieve,” says Cunin, who was pursuing aerospace engineering in university at that time. Growing up on her family’s farm on the north coast of New South Wales, Cunin had what she calls an “off-the-grid” childhood, but she was always taught to think big. Her fascination with space started when she was gifted her first telescope at the age of eight. When she was 14, she decided to be an aerospace engineer. “Growing up on the farm, I was very hands-on. I was always fixing and making things. And so I decided to marry what I love about the night sky to my love of making things. That’s when I decided that I was going to be an aerospace engineer.” But it wasn’t until she watched the live stream of the SpaceX launch that she realised that she wanted to do more for the space industry – an industry that was lacking local engagement and a national representation on the global scale. To get that engagement, she needed to start from the grassroots. She set her eyes on the schools. She paired up with fellow University of Technology Sydney student, Sebastian Chaoui and founded Cuberider, a start-up with a mission to encourage science and tech skills among students. “What we discovered is that here in Australia there is poor engagement among students within the Science, Tech, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines, but the number of jobs that require STEM skills is on the rise. “I wasn’t a very studious student when I was in high school, but I did it all because I had a goal. I wanted to do something in space. Space got me through school as a light at the end of the tunnel. And I thought, ‘Well if that worked for me, that may work for others. So why not use space to engage and inspire students in STEM?’” Cunin and Chaoui then devised the Cuberider program, which ran its first course last year. More than 60 schools nationwide took part. The program incorporates partnerships with the schools and provides teaching support for students to design and code experiments that NASA astronauts on the ISS will perform. Students, who are mostly from years 9 to 11, are taken out of the regular classroom setting and put through hands-on learning challenges in which they acquire an understanding of coding, physics, data analysis and engineering. They also hone the critical thinking, imagination and problem-solving skills required to conduct successful real-life space tests.
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