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South Charleston High students to launch satellite

The table was littered with cords and wires, batteries and circuit boards.

Last week, all of this technology was still on the earth's surface -- and in the hands of South Charleston High School students -- but in a few months, much of it will take a trip to the edge of outer space.

By launch time, in the spring of this year, all these parts will have been assembled and programmed by the high school students, made into two near space satellites carrying equipment to measure weather and environmental conditions.

They'll be launched and travel up to 100,000 feet above the earth's surface before they float back to earth with the help of a parachute. Hopefully, all of it will be recorded and streamed online, so the students and community can experience the experiment in real time.

This is all part of a new pilot project at South Charleston High, a partnership between the school's computer science teacher, Joe Oliver, and Jeff Imel, a local businessman and engineer.

Imel founded Air Robotics, a Charleston-based company that designs and builds small, unmanned aircraft, or drones. He came to that after a childhood interested in technology.

One day, when he was 14, Imel decided he wanted to be an amateur radio operator.

"So I walked around the neighborhood looking for a house that had all those funny looking antennas," he said. "And when I found one, I walked up to the front door and said, 'I think you might be an amateur radio operator. I want to be one too.'"

That started a five-year mentorship that set the trajectory for the rest of Imel's life. Now, he's trying to repay the favor.

He and Oliver got together through their wives, who are friends, and Imel proposed the idea of the satellite project. Oliver went for it immediately, no hesitation.

"This is where learning becomes fun," Oliver said. "There's so much to learn, and I love the challenge ... I just feed off of that, and the students feed off of it."

It is a challenge. The work they're going to be doing is work typically reserved for undergraduates on the college level. But Imel and Oliver -- and the students -- are confident they can do it.

That includes the manual work of assembling the parts that will go into the satellite, as well as writing the computer code that will tell those parts what they need to do while the satellite is in the air.

There's more, though. It's not just Oliver's computer science classes that are working on the satellite: English classes have been writing press releases about the project. Physics students have been working on the math. The idea is to get all of South Charleston High's students involved, all 1,100 of them.

"It's a whole hodgepodge of people, and that's the beauty of this project," Imel said.

The teachers hope that, if the project is a success, they can replicate it at the school again next year. Then they want to take what they've learned and develop a curriculum to share with other schools across the district and the state.

They see it as an integral part of the push for more focus on STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math -- in schools in West Virginia and across the nation.

Educators generally agree that hands-on activities are the best way to get kids interested in these disciplines, which are becoming increasingly important in the 21st century.

Tiffany Grigsby, an 11th-grader who is working on the satellites, is one of the students who needs no convincing. She wants to go into aerospace or aeronautical engineering in college and maybe work for NASA. For her, the satellite project is the ideal science project.

"I love outer space," she said. "The unknown is so interesting. You don't know a lot about it, and I'm here to learn ... building a satellite is the perfect thing."

Grigsby is a self-professed hands-on learner. She doubts she could learn how to build a satellite from a book, but she knows she'll emerge from this class with those skills.

"And then it's not just that you know what's in there, it's that you understand what's in there."

The class is using crowd sourcing to raise money to purchase equipment for the project. To donate, visit indiegogo.com/projects/near-space-project.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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