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Wheeling students shoot for the stars with NASA project

Published June 11, 2024

Space travel is hardly new, but videos of astronauts floating through the International Space Station never get old.

Watch carefully the next time you see such a video, because Wheeling High School (WHS) students have manufactured the lockers sent up to the space station to house experiments and projects that the astronauts are tasked to complete.

In a partnership that originated several years ago, WHS works with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and a program called HUNCH, which is dedicated to providing project-based learning for high school students by participating in the design and fabrication of products for NASA.

“We make these parts – anywhere between 20 and 40 a year – and spend three or four months designing them on a computer and then doing the machine work,” explained WHS teacher Eric Race, who teaches Advanced CNC Machining. “Students really dial in, to make sure everything is within tolerance.”

While the basic work has remained the same for several years, each year’s class seeks to improve the product. Students are well aware that a high-profile client depends on them to complete the project with quality precision. That, Race said, gives students a sense of ownership and pride as they ship the completed parts to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“Part of me wants to just think of it as a normal assignment, and the other part understands that it's an assignment for NASA” said Wheeling senior Patrick Olecheno. “In a sense, it gives me a reason to try harder, as I want to demonstrate my skill to NASA.” 

For their part, NASA and HUNCH have taken note of Wheeling students’ dedication to getting it right. So successfully have WHS students done this work, Race noted, that Dr. Florence Gold, who directs video and media for HUNCH, has been known to write recommendation letters for students. Additionally, HUNCH representatives visited Wheeling recently to speak with students and inspect their work for the space station.

Like any good work-based learning experience, this one helps students thoughtfully sort through career options and develop skills that will serve them well in any work environment.

“At first I had wanted to be a manufacturing engineer, but after working with NASA to create these parts, I am far more interested in design and mechanical engineering,” said Wheeling senior Matt Beauban.

As for skills that will translate into any future profession, Jacob Interewicz said of the NASA work: “I learned how to connect with others better, as I always had to check how others are doing or I had to help them out whenever they needed. You also learn responsibility in the sense that you have to make your own decisions on how to most effectively achieve our goal of producing all the parts required. You learn how to work on the fly and adapt to any situation being thrown at you.”

In addition to the problem-solving and critical thinking skills they develop, students earn 12 hours worth of dual credit through Harper College. Plus the satisfaction of contributing to the space station research work being conducted by Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia, along with the United States.

“This may not be considered mission critical, but it is definitely beneficial to Space Station crews,” Race said of his students’ work. “They’re doing a really challenging and hard thing.”