Small Satellites for Secondary Students



Small Satellites for Secondary Students (S4) is a unique three-part pilot program that fills an important "missing link" in NASA's secondary school K-12 educational pipeline, providing additional flight opportunities for middle- and high-school students. S4 is also useful in informal education settings, including summer programs, museums and technology centers, and after-school clubs.

  1. We are developing a standards-aligned Educator Guide for secondary-school classrooms and informal education groups that will teach the hands-on design and experimentation skills needed to build, fly and analyze data from small scientific payloads on a variety of launch platforms, including high-power rockets and high altitude balloons.
  2. We will use the Guide and additional resource materials to conduct a week-long training session in July 2013 for participating formal and informal educators, in which they build their own small satellite payloads, helping us to develop and test the materials in the Guide. The educators are then required to use the guide to help students build payloads during the academic year 2013-14. Training materials will be freely available on-line for future use and will meet NASA’s communication and accessibility standards.
  3. Once completed, student-built small satellite payloads will be flown by partners including: California's AeroPac prefecture of the Tripoli Rocketry Association, the LUNAR chapter of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) and the Rocket club of California (ROC), as well as through programs such as the Endeavour Institute’s annual Balloon Fest. Students will be able to view many of the flights through the use of the Virtual Classroom, and will be able to collect and analyze the resulting data. This program will provide unparalleled access to the design, development and flight process for hundreds of students involved in the pilot teams, while allowing thousands of additional students to participate online in the flight events and data collection and analysis. It will also provide additional low-cost access to flight opportunities for students nationwide.

Lead Organizations

Sonoma State University




We have established a partnership with both national high-power rocketry organizations: the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) and Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA). These organizations will promote our educator’s guide and payload design to their members, who will be encouraged to work with local students nationwide to continue the program, after the completion of this development effort. We have also partnered with NASA Dryden Research Center and its educational affiliate, the Aero Institute, to host the educator’s workshop in July 2013. The workshop will be attended by approximately 20 formal and informal educators (including 4 Girl Scout troop leaders) who will pilot test the materials with approximately 200 students during the 2013-14 academic year. Many of these students are from groups traditionally under-represented in STEM disciplines. An additional partner is the Endeavour Institute, located in Paso Robles, California, which hosts the annual Balloon Fest for teams of local middle and high-school students. Steve Kliewer from the Endeavour Institute, a tethered balloon experiment expert, is providing internal review of the Educator’s guide as well as assisting in the summer training. The Endeavour Institute will support tethered balloon launches by participants during the 2013-14 academic year. Ken Biba, Education Officer of the AeroPac TRA prefecture, and Tony Alcocer, President of AeroPac will also be assisting with the training. Biba runs the Virtual Classroom mobile satellite van, which can beam live telemetry and video from our launch site to classrooms through satellite Internet. The Virtual Classroom was originally developed with funding from the California Space Authority. Payloads built by the teachers during the training will be launched with assistance from the TRA/NRA Rocketry Organization of California. Payloads built by the students will be launched by members of the TRA and NAR clubs located in the students’ geographic regions, including: AeroPac, Livermore Unit of NAR (LUNAR), Tripoli Central Coast, and ROC. And finally, Morehead State University Prof. Robert Twiggs, inventor of the CanSat concept, expert in small satellite payload development, and originator of ARLISS (A Rocket Launch for International Student Satellites) will be assisting with the summer training.




Metrics for this mission are unavailable until its inception in July 2013.



Effectiveness and Impact

Evaluation findings and impact statements:

The project’s evaluation component is conducted by WestEd, under the direction of Dr. Edward Britton. The evaluation process includes both formative (primarily year 2) and summative components (primarily year 3). Much of the formative evaluation is being carried out by project staff and is part of their budgeted labor, e.g., expert review of the educator guides for scientific and technological accuracy and appropriateness, getting educators’ ongoing reactions to early draft Educator Guides, and day-to-day monitoring of the effectiveness of the summer teacher training session. WestEd is collaborating on these tasks by providing input as needed or requested, and/or helping to carry them out. However, WestEd is also independently executing some other formative evaluation tasks: expert pedagogical review of the draft Educator Guides, as well as educator review through focus groups and/or online surveys; and evaluation of the effectiveness of the summer educator training institute through onsite observation, informal interviews, and a survey, plus a follow-up online survey. For summative evaluation, WestEd will in year 3 observe key instructional activities from the final Educator Guide by conducting limited case studies for several of the teams: conducting interviews with the educators involved, examining student work produced, and surveying the students for their views on the activities. WestEd also will survey all educators involved in the project in year 3. A second goal of summative evaluation will be examining what influence the program had on students’ future plans to study more STEM subjects than they would have taken absent the program: surveying all participating students shortly after grant activities on their intentions for future STEM course-taking in high school or college (depending upon the grade levels of the participants) and their attribution of any changed intentions to the grant activity; and surveying students again later on their actual subsequent STEM course-taking.

Impact Evidence:

In December 2012, SSU staff member Logan Hill and student Kevin Zack helped to support the Balloon Fest competition in Paso Robles, mentoring and assisting approximately 80 middle- and high-school students, and 10 middle- and high-school teachers.

In February 2013, Cominsky was invited to describe the program at the NAR national conference, the audience was approximately 75 people. She was also invited to write an article that in press for the Fall issue of Sport Rocketry magazine, the NAR membership publication.

In May 2013, Cominsky and another SSU staff member helped to support the Championship Balloon Fest competition in Paso Robles. Kevin John mentored and assisted approximately 80 middle- and high-school students, and 10 middle- and high-school teachers, while Cominsky was one of the judges for the competition.

Additional Information or comments:

Approximately 7000 American students build model rockets each year for Team America Rocketry Challenge competitions, yet fewer than 100 have the opportunity to further develop their STEM skills by building, designing and analyzing data from scientific payloads, which are major objectives for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). In our pilot program, diverse students and educators in approximately 20 secondary schools and informal education groups will have this exciting opportunity. The pilot program will create the infrastructure needed to offer flight opportunities to students in western states through partnerships with rocket and balloon groups working with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) and Ames Research Center (ARC). At its completion, we will have developed the infrastructure and resources necessary to sustainably engage thousands of students nation-wide in hands-on design and experimentation through the “Virtual Classroom” – a web-based broadcast facility. The Virtual Classroom (VC) will allow teams in secondary schools throughout the United States to send and receive the telemetry needed to operate their own small satellite payloads remotely, while inspiring additional students through web-based communications including live launch videos and real-time blogs. Our program will fill the gap in NASA’s workforce development pipeline that currently exists between model rocketry programs and complex payload development projects. Secondary school students nation-wide will be able to experience the excitement of developing their own small scientific payload experiments, learning valuable research, development, test and evaluation skills in the process, seeing these experiments fly, and collecting and subsequently analyzing real scientific data.