When was the last time you spoke with an astronaut?  The answer from 40 high school students at Winston Churchill may surprise you. Launched in 2008, the NASA & Global NetGeneration of Youth (NGY-NASA-SWC), a unique multi-year educational initiative with two American schools, NASA, the International Space Station,  corporate, government and community based partners, is engaging and empowering students with 21st century skills in research and communication.

Students organized themselves into 5 project groups based on their interests. Meeting twice a week in the ‘NGY Crater,’ a name coined by the students, they work on projects related to rocketry, robotics, astronomy, 3D space and an investigation into Space: A Unifying or Dividing Frontier?”

This inquiry-based learning initiative integrates student-centered learning and real world issues to inspire students in the areas of math, science, technologies and humanities. “EducationMatters funding allows us to provide our students with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have,” notes Michael Freiter, AISI Learning Leader.  Students involved in this program aren’t mimicking science projects; they are participating in the projects themselves and able to draw on the expertise of a global community. “When I talk to astronauts, it gives me a real person to talk to, not a website. It’s our own personal information source and it’s great,” says grade 12 student Jack Chu who plans to pursue chemical engineering next year.

The value in this initiative comes not necessarily from the product the students create, but through its interdisciplinary approach, focus on teamwork and collaboration, project management and metacognition. “I love watching them – the natural progression is amazing,” says Christine Salloum, AISI Learning Leader, who supervises the robotics team.

“We want to be able to pick something up with our robot, but the sensor isn’t working properly so we need to think about it more,” explains grade 10 student Harsh Vashi. “It’s all a learning experience and now I actually know all about sensors and how they are used to manipulate the robot. When we started I didn’t know anything.”

The students admit to arguing, but the teamwork and synergy is evident as they work around tables, troubleshooting and discussing ideas. “We argue a lot sometimes. It’s funny, but it has taught me that you have to work together to satisfy everyone. And sometimes, you just have to compromise,” says Jack. For his team mate David Yu, the best thing he’s learned from the NASA club is “that conflict gets you better results.”

Students gain the ability to take charge of their learning, explore their passions and make real connections through this collaborative pilot initiative. “Students are here because they want to be. It’s a unique and challenging environment and they choose to show up every week,” says Michael.