Second Smallest School in West Virginia Works on NASA Project

Oct 15, 2014

Chris Poniris, STEM instructor and Carol Coryea, 7th-12th grade science teacher at Paw Paw Schools.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This week, students at a very small West Virginia school are wrapping up a very big science project…with help from NASA. They’re building a full scale model of a satellite. It’s something you might not expect to see at the second smallest school in the state...but one teacher had the ambition and enthusiasm to make it happen.

Space exploration, the universe, satellites, rockets…it’s what many kids dream about. And for the middle and high school students at Paw Paw Schools, dreams like those are not so far away. 7th through 12th graders here are building a full scale model of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Satellite.

“In short, the MMS mission is studying how Earth’s magnetic field works," said Todd Ensign, the Program Manager at NASA’s Educator Resource Center in Fairmont, “In particular, you know, how it helps to protect us from high energy particles. Life on Earth would not exist, the way we know it at least, if it weren’t for Earth’s magnetic field.”

Paper models of the MMS satellite.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The NASA Center in Fairmont provides free training to instructors who want to teach STEM subjects. Two years ago, Paw Paw’s only 7th through 12th grade science teacher, Carol Coryea, went to one of the trainings. It was about the MMS mission and how its four satellites will monitor solar weather after they’re launched in March.

Coryea was so inspired by what she learned, she immediately brought it into her classroom. She first taught her kids about solar weather using iPads, and then they started making small, paper models of the MMS satellite.

About a year ago, she decided to take it even further when she and her students toured the MMS mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

“I asked the contact person, what would it take to build a model of the satellite," Coryea said, "what if our students did that? And so one thing led to another, and we came up with this idea that why not build a full scale model?"

Unfinished full scale model of the MMS satellite.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

She talked about her idea with her colleague, Chris Poniris, Paw Paw School’s STEM instructor. NASA was so intrigued by their enthusiasm that the agency agreed to provide all the materials for the project.

“We didn’t pick a random school in the state," said Todd Ensign, "we didn’t pick Paw Paw because it was the second smallest school. We picked it because Carol and Chris have been very involved in NASA programs and specifically they’ve already done MMS with their students.”

The year-long project has taken over Chris Poniris’ construction and engineering shop, and Carol Coryea says sometimes space can get a little tight. But, she says, a small school like this is the ideal place for a project of this caliber.

“We have the same cohort of students," Coryea said, "so students that I have for Science, Mr. Poniris will have for construction or megatronics, or I may have in a chemistry course or I’ve had them for biology, so we’re all working with the same group of students.”

Pieces of the full scale model ready to be put in place.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Coryea says sometimes the demands on the students can be challenging, but she and other staff take care not to let the project interfere with other subjects.

“We’ve been very cautious not to pull our kids out of courses that they need, you know…that they would be working on otherwise," said Coryea, "We’ve done a lot of writing, we’ve done a lot of speaking and presentations, so we’ve been able to kind of support those other courses, but yet not actually ever pulling those students out of those classes.”

A year’s worth of hard work on the satellite project is about to come to fruition. On Friday, Coryea and her students will take the model to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and present it to the media and the public. After that, it will be on display at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston.

As the deadline nears, these kids are putting the final touches on the model.

9th Grader, Kelly White began working on the project with the paper models two years ago. She says it’s bittersweet to see it all coming to an end.

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s a little upsetting that I know that the project’s going to be over," White noted, "but I hope we get to work on more, and it’s going to be neat to be able to see it in the museum,”

“And what’s one thing you’ll take away from this project that you’ll keep with you for the rest of your life?” asked West Virginia Public Radio reporter, Liz McCormick.

“That I can say that I built that project, I was a part of it," White said.

Many of these kids say they might be interested in a career in a STEM field now, even if they’d never thought about it before. Carol Coryea hopes she’ll be able to take her students to see the real MMS satellites when they’re launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in March.