NASA challenge

Red Mountain High School engineering students who won the NASA TechRise Student Challenge include, from left, sophomore Kearan Gibbs and juniors Tayah Day, Jonathan Coon and Zephyr Proffitt. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

A student team from Red Mountain High School will see their scientific ingenuity fly high this summer after winning NASA contest.

NASA selected 60 winning teams in the TechRise Student Challenge, a nationwide contest designed to engage students in hands-on STEM experience, giving them the opportunity to test their innovative solutions for space exploration and the study of Earth via a high-altitude flight test. 

Red Mountain High School engineering students who won the challenge include sophomore Kearan Gibbs and juniors Tayah Day, Jonathan Coon and Zephyr Proffitt. 

The Red Mountain High School team got $1,500 to build out a flight box with technical support from Future Engineers and an assigned spot to test it on one of two NASA-sponsored high-altitude balloon flights scheduled for this summer. 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “Through opportunities like the TechRise Student Challenge, young people are deepening their passion in science and technology, preparing to be the future innovators and pioneers who help humanity soar to new heights and unlock more secrets of the universe.

Approximately 275 volunteer experts in engineering, space, and Earth science reviewed and evaluated written proposals for originality of their idea, its impact on education and/or society, feasibility and the quality of the build plan.

The four Red Mountain students were led by teacher Adam Middleton and will work through the remainder of the school year building out their experiment, titled “Alternative Ultraviolet Effects from Non-Ozone-Depleting Pollutants.”

With the support of a professional engineer, they will look at where there is a relationship between pollutants and UV rays in the ozone layer and whether they inhibit radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface.

Eight years ago, Middleton transferred to Red Mountain High School with the intent of working with the engineering program.

He said the school has built a four-year pathway that helps students understand the world through a design mindset.

“Our philosophy from the beginning has been we really want to build problem solvers,” Middleton said. “We want to build kids who are ready to move out into the world.”

Red Mountain junior Jonathan Coon said his great-grandfather’s work as a chemical engineer piqued his interest in engineering.

“I basically started from scratch,” Coon said. “We do a wide variety of things that helped prepare us for this.”

Inspired in part by her father’s work as an engineer, junior Tayah Day said she took an interest in the field since seventh grade and became involved in extracurriculars like woodworking and the Engineering Club at Red Mountain.

“But our teacher Mr. Middleton’s the one that showed us this project and says, ‘you guys have to do this,’” Tayah said. 

 Tayah said Red Mountain’s STEM programs offers plenty of career samplings, including a robotics program.

“I love this program,” she said. “I feel like it provides a lot of opportunities just to get involved.”

Opportunities like this come in handy for students like sophomore Kearan Gibbs, who has aspired for a career in aerospace since childhood and has her eyes set on attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“And so, I’m trying to get involved with as many things as possible, so that I can achieve that,” Kearan said.

She said it felt “pretty surreal” to find out they won the NASA challenge – a baptism-by-fire for the only sophomore in the group.

With his older brother helping the school win the school’s first NASA challenge a few years ago, junior Zephyr Proffitt said he also has an interest in a variety of STEM fields and that the school’s program helps him to try out as many as possible.

“Whenever NASA does a challenge, we’re on it,” Zephyr said. “The Red Mountain engineering department is on it almost immediately; StellarXplorers, we were on it almost immediately.”

He said everything they study in the program builds up to the fourth-year engineering design and development class.

“That class is 100% just about a project that you work on with a group to make an actual change and to help real people in the world,” Jonathan added. 

On flight day this summer, the students’ experiments will be tested via a high-altitude balloon flight from one of two commercial providers: Aerostar of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or World View in Tucson.

The payloads will gather data as the balloons ascend to approximately 70,000 feet, where they will float for at least four hours, and get exposed to the unique atmospheric conditions in the stratosphere that cannot be replicated in ground tests.

The payloads also will observe the surface below them and collect data on land features such as vegetation, crops, urban centers, and bodies of water. 

With more than 13 years teaching primarily physics, Middleton said he enjoys projects like this and the many others he finds for the kids because it expands on what they learn in the classroom. 

“We’re really proud of what we do, but we’re proud of our kids, and that’s why we try to put them out there as much as we can, because the work that’s happening here is not high school work on most campuses,” Middleton said.

 “The stuff that these kids are doing is well beyond what most high school students are getting opportunities to do or taking up the challenge to do even while they’re in high school setting.”

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