Rancho Pico students travel aboard shuttle for out-of-this-world experience

Astronaut Shanelle Lim, left, medical officer Katie Luo, Kyle Jurkowski, and alien Kelly Fink, right, help Lim spot "moonrocks" in the grass during a moonwalk simulation at Rancho Pico Junior High's space simulator on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Aboard a space shuttle, astronaut Shanelle Lim, 13, prepares for her first moon walk as she slips into a hazmat suit and puts on her moon shoes.

Nearby, fellow astronaut and pilot Christine Rieo, 13, designs the team’s NASA mission patch with help from the mission specialists and flight directors on the ground.

“There are a lot of responsibilities and a lot of things you have to do,” Rieo said.

The young teens were not aboard a shuttle in outer space, but were in a shuttle simulator complete with working dials and switches, landing simulators, cameras, communication headsets, flight manuals, a working command center and even an alien.

Created and designed by Rancho Pico Junior High School eighth grade science teacher Liz Virnelson, the Shuttle Simulator Project gives students a glimpse into the work of aerospace engineers and astronauts as they finish scheduled activities and complete their mission.

“I’m hoping that through this they might get turned on to a career in aerospace and engineering,” Virnelson said.  “That’s why I put in all the time to run it and train the kids because, one, it’s something they’ll never forget and, two, maybe it’ll lead to a career.”

Fifteen years ago, Virnelson sent her first group of student astronauts to “space” with support from parent volunteers who helped build the space shuttle, mission control station and outer space structure.

Virnelson said they arrived with sheet metal, used wood, gauges, wires, dials and switches to create the first space shuttle simulator.

Today, the project has grown in both size and scale, with more activities and work stations for the students to experience.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” Virnelson said.

A month before the project beings, Virnelson begins setting up the different elements of the space simulator.  The last phase of construction is the dark room, designed to imitate outer space with dark curtains, black lights and glowing planets.

“When they come out of the hatch, I want them to have this feeling that they’re really in space,” she said.

Shanelle Lim, 13, center, is escorted back from her simulated moonwalk by alien helper Kelly Fink, 13, right, and medical officer Katie Luo, 13, left, during the space simulator program at Ranch Pico Junior High on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Students also apply for various positions within the space simulator before it is constructed.  This year, a total of 12 eighth graders, six boys and six girls, were selected as astronauts and more than 80 students participated in four all-day missions.

“It impacts so many kids,” Virnelson said.  “I take about a month of my lunches and I train all of the kids to do their specific jobs so then it kind of runs on auto pilot.”

The students learn to follow a pre-written script, made by Virnelson, which is highlighted with their specific lines to follow during the simulation and follow a notebook for a time schedule of the day-long activities.

“Everything is done so they are real confident,” Virnelson said.  “It’s the mission control that keeps the astronauts totally on task… and follows the scripted activities based on our schedule.”

Alien Kelly Fink prepares to help out a fellow student-turned-astronaut during a simulated moonwalk as teacher Liz Virnelson gives instructions at Ranch Pico Junior High on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

These activities include building a rover, a decoding scenario, creating a patch design with grids, , a tower challenge, a pilot flight simulator, completing flight repairs and building the International Space Station through a computer application called “Skybase.”

“They’ll do something called shuttle repair so they’ll have these Legos and have to wear double gloves and pliers,” Virnelson said of the repair which is meant to imitate actual shuttle repairs.  “They’ll get this kit and what they have to do is assemble them into particular patterns that they can only touch with needle nose pliers.”

Outside of the shuttle and command center, “architectural engineers” worked in shifts to put together a mars rover made out of a 2,000-piece K’NEX.

“What that to me creates is a good communication lesson because they put it together and have to put together where they left off for the next person to pick it up,” Virnelson said.

However, a popular activity among students is the simulated moonwalk where an astronaut dresses in Moon Shoes and a hazmat suit to hit golf balls “off the moon” and pick up “moon rocks.”

“My favorite part was going on the moon walk,” flight director Kyle Jurkowski, 13, said.

Medical officer Katie Luo, 13, left, holds out a back for astronaut Shanelle Lim, 13, center, to place “moonrocks” into a bag, as Kyle Jurkowski, 13, right, helps to spot the remaining rocks on the Rancho Pico Junior High quad on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

The astronaut is also accompanied by a medical officer and an alien to guide her along the way and check her vital signs.

Astronaut Emme Alcalde, 14 participated in the moon walk and said she applied for the space simulator to learn more about the aerospace industry.

“I thought it would be a fun opportunity to do something we can’t do anywhere else,” she said.

And it might be the last time eighth grade students at the school will get a chance to experience the shuttle simulation, as Virnelson will retire from her 45-year teaching career this May.

“I heard it was Mrs. Virnelson’s last year and I wanted to be part of it,” astronaut Christine Rieo said.

Virnelson hopes another teacher from Rancho Pico will take on the shuttle simulator next year so more students can experience what it’s like to travel to outer space.

“My hope is that it will continue.  I have put my heart and soul into this.  Everyone absolutely loves it and the parents enjoy it, but it’s a lot of work,” Virnelson said.  “It’s worth it though because the kids love it so much.”

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On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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