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NASA experiments challenge kids

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STURGEON BAY – The smile on Anabelle Clark ‘s face fell into a grimace when her parachute collapsed during an experiment Wednesday at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Door County .

The parachute, made of pieces of plastic wrap, was attached to a balloon carrying a roll of white paper. The goal, when Clark held the contraption aloft, was that the parachute would cause the balloon carrying the paper roll to slowly glide to the floor. Instead, it crashed when the parachute collapsed on the balloon.

Undeterred, the 12-year-old gathered the parachute and balloon and placed her experiment on a table. Clark pulled at the plastic. Then, she picked up the balloon, feeling the heft of the attached paper roll and her smile re-emerged. She had an idea, and a new plan began to hatch.

Clark is one of the students at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Door County participating in a new program sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The program was developed by NASA to challenge students with science, technology, engineering and math projects to foster an awareness about aeronautics and space, and develop interest in the different fields of study. These areas of study are among the fields with career potential around the nation.

NASA awarded the Boys & Girls Clubs of Door County a grant to offer the program for students in third grade through high school.

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John Spittlemeister, 14, one of the participants, said he’s always wanted to be an engineer and the NASA experiments appeal to his interests.

“I’m very creative, and that’s why I like doing these things,” Spittlemeister said.

The activities in the program reinforce that studying engineering, aeronautics or science are enjoyable and challenging fields, he said.

The goal of the NASA experiment the students were studying was to create a prototype for a vehicle holding an astronaut along with a parachute. The vehicle would be launched from a spaceship to land on another planet. Each project is completed over multiple sessions with students finishing the experiments by demonstrating their prototypes.

Back at the parachute experiment table, Clark added four fluorescent-colored plastic drinking straws to her parachute to give it form to collect air, creating drag to slow the descent of the balloon carrying her vehicle prototype.

With the straws added, the parachute collapsed a bit but remained open enough to collect additional drag. The added weight of the straws, though, caused the balloon to crash onto the floor, again.

Clark picked up her creation and studied the logistical puzzle. She said her plan included continuing to use the plastic wrap because it is lightweight yet expandable to collect air, creating drag.

“I think if I can figure out a way to keep the parachute open; it will work,” Clark said.

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Michael Clark carefully watches the flight of his handmade aircraft from different heights inside the STEAM Lab at the Boys & Girls Club of Door County in Sturgeon Bay. The club received a grant from NASA to engineer Crew Exploration Vehicles (CEV) using simple components. (Photo: Tina M. Gohr/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Students are challenged to think about a design and using materials in the classroom they create models, said Natalie LeRoy, the club’s director of academic achievement. After creating their models, students test the prototypes and modify their creations while working to solve the project.

“It’s using what we have here to solve a problem and it requires some creativity. The kids really enjoy the challenges, and often they are working together about their plans,” LeRoy said.

When someone is stumped, LeRoy helps with suggestions about materials to use or problem-solve an alteration to a model’s design.

The program also involves feedback from NASA engineers through video conferencing about the experiments.

“The kids have opportunities to talk to the people who work for NASA and they see (being an engineer or scientist) is something they can do, too,” LeRoy said.

While the Boys & Girls Clubs offer after-school care and enrichment activities for students from kindergarten through high school, the facilities also work to inspire and enable children to reach their full potential.

“With this NASA grant, Boys & Girls Club of Door County has reached an even higher level in the ‘great futures’ mission,” said Julie Davis, the club’s director.

Clark already has her eyes set on a medical career, but working for NASA might be her back-up plan, she said.

To learn more about the Boys & Girls Clubs of Door County, call 912-818-1046 or go to the website http://bgcdoorcounty.org/.

Liz Welter: 920-743-3321, ext. 4114, or lwelter@doorcountyadvocate.com; on Twitter @welter_liz.

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