PICTURED: The Ventura Missionary School eighth-grade science class poses with the Helpful Honda People and the gifts of new LEGO® Mindstorms® EV3s. Photo by Emily Dodi

by Emily Dodi 

The title of this article could very well be “When Good Things Happen to Great Students.”

Just in time for Christmas, the eighth-grade science class at Ventura Missionary School got a surprise visit from the Helpful Honda People of SoCal Honda. (Yes, they really do exist.) On Dec. 19, Helpful Honda representatives Zuly Tellez, Ricardo Mota and Lindsay Iellimo arrived on the VMS campus to give the school LEGO® Mindstorms® EV3s to help the eighth graders power a very special experiment. 

As VMS students explained in a letter to the VC Reporter, the eighth graders “are partnering with NASA and Quest Institute to learn about the differences between science on Earth and in space, specifically on heat transfer.” They will be “sending an experiment utilizing a LEGO® Mindstorms EV3 to space that will be flown to the International Space Station.” 

The Quest Institute is an educational non-profit organization whose mission is “to introduce, intrigue, inspire and ultimately engage students to understand what it means to pursue STEM-based careers.” Its Quest For Space technology experiment platform “enables students to create science experiments that run on the International Space Station (ISS).”

Random Act of Helpfulness

This is the fourth year that VMS has partnered with Quest and NASA on an experiment.

“We are one of the few schools in the whole state that do this,” says Dr. Tammy Ennis, VMS dean of academic affairs, who adds that VMS has integrated the program into their eighth-grade curriculum. “It’s so exciting. We love it.” 

The feeling shows. In addition to the palpable excitement in the air is tangible evidence of the school’s enthusiasm for the program, from the abundance of space-themed posters to the autographed photographs of NASA astronauts on the wall.

“It’s just really cool. It’s very hands-on learning,” Ennis says proudly. “It’s learning by doing.”

On this particular morning, unbeknownst to the students working on their experiments, the Helpful Honda People were being greeted by Dr. Ennis, as well as Amy Hall, dean of student affairs, and science teacher Alane Woods. Then came the big moment: The Helpful Honda People stepped quietly into the room and surprised the students with brand new EV3s. Stunned silence may be the best way to describe the students’ initial reaction. It took a minute for it all to sink in and then the cheers erupted.

Teacher Alane Woods and one of her eighth-grade science students unpack the gifts of LEGO® Mindstorms® EV3s from the Helpful Honda People. Photo by Emily Dodi

Up until that moment, the two sections of the science class, 58 students in all, had to share a few EV3s among several small teams. The Helpful Honda People’s “Random Act of Helpfulness” means that each team can have its own EV3, so more people can work on the experiment at one time. It will also help students preserve their individual data by reducing the risk of information being lost when EV3s are traded from one team to another. The gift is a real boon to the school’s program.

Learning by Doing

“The EV3 is the mind behind the experiment. It turns on a heat element and it takes the temperature,” Woods explains. “The first experiment we did was between black and white: Which heats up faster? [The students] have that data and in February it will be flown to the International Space Station where that same experiment will be done again. [The students] will analyze the data between the two — what happens in space and what doesn’t happen in space. Then the information gets turned over to NASA through our Quest program and they use it to better their program in hopes of going to Mars.”

Since the space station is about halfway to Mars, Woods explains, “What happens there also happens on Mars. It’s easier to go [to ISS] and do experiments, so we can eventually get our astronauts to Mars.”

Woods’ students are also testing whether heat rises in space.

“We know on Earth heat rises. But does heat rise in space?” Woods explains that the answer will have a real impact on what happens in space. “They have to know where heat is going to end up.”

It’s all very interesting and amazing stuff, and not just because what the students work on in the classroom will have a real effect on what happens in space.

“They are actually touching science. It’s not in a book. They’re putting together the electrical. They’re coding. They’re getting the results. They’re trying to problem solve,” says Woods. “I’m of the belief that science has to be touched . . . [Students] can read about this, but to actually have to physically do it is a whole other thing.” 

“It’s really fun,” Woods adds. “They get to touch and feel science in a whole different way than they have in the past.” She recalls one of the students’ first experiments of the year. “When they first take two batteries and a lightbulb and make it light up — they’ve made a circuit. They understand that electrons are moving. Just that gets them excited because they actually did something themselves.”

Beyond Science

Ventura Missionary School eighth graders Quinn McMurtry and Trinity Jones with their experiment. Photo by Emily Dodi

“I’ve always been interested in engineering and also science but I’ve never done anything like this. It’s really fun,” says eighth-grader Quinn McMurtry, who adds that it’s been educational beyond just engineering. “You get to learn about other people.”

Teammate Trinity Jones agrees.

“It’s a good learning experience,” she says.

There are plenty of ups and downs that come with being a scientist. As Woods often reminds her students, it took Thomas Edison more than 600 tries to get the lightbulb right. In the end, the students may inevitably learn just as much about perseverance and teamwork as they do about science and engineering.

Teamwork extends beyond each small group because, as Dr. Ennis explains, each team shares their data with the whole class. When all is said and done, only one program will be chosen to go into space. McMurtry and Jones think it will come down to a few factors: Which program is the most sophisticated and which model is the best built and works the best.

Because what the students build in the classroom is not NASA-parts ready, Woods will upload the final program to Quest and send them detailed photos of the finished model. Quest will then rebuild the model exactly in NASA parts and seal it up so it’s safe to go to space.  

Throughout the process, Quest acts very much like a partner to Woods and her students, especially when they run into problems they don’t know how to fix.

“The other day,” Woods recalls, “our ceramic heat element was smoking. I checked everything and I thought it was wired right. I quickly emailed Quest and they said, ‘It’s probably at 12 volts instead of 5 volts.’ ”

Quest was right: The team was overheating the element by sending too many volts through it. “Yesterday a student’s screen wasn’t working,” Woods adds. After much thought and a little frustration, the student realized it wasn’t plugged in all the way. (We can all relate to that.) Lessons like these have real world applications beyond what happens in space. But space is where the students have trained their gaze. Getting their model to the ISS, receiving data from a program they themselves designed and having the opportunity to help further space exploration — that is what they are all working towards. Together.

That’s not to say students are not being graded along the way. They have homework and take tests, and each student keeps an engineering notebook just like a professional scientist. Even so, it’s easy to see that this project literally goes way, way beyond the classroom.  

Soon, Ventura Missionary School will be going out to sea or, more accurately, down.

“We have already qualified for the next phase of NASA-sponsored experiments to the bottom of the ocean,” says Dr. Ennis. “It’s in development for seventh grade.” Then, with a smile, Ennis imagines where the minds and imaginations of students will venture next. “From the bottom of the ocean and all the way up to the heavens.” 

Ventura Missionary School
500 High Point Drive, Ventura