After a semester of additional curriculum through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, high school juniors participating in the Idaho Science and Aerospace Scholars program were treated to a tour of the University of Idaho Monday, which ended in a drone race.

Monday’s visit was one of three similar summer capstone events in the state inviting ISAS students to learn more about fields related to science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM.

UI Professor Matt Bernards, who is also director of the Idaho Space Grant Consortium, said high school juniors from schools all over the state tackle additional NASA-developed curriculum through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy in their junior year to participate in the ISAS program. Bernards said once students complete this coursework, they are invited to participate in capstone events over the summer, and the 88 students with the best grades can take part in one of two week-long summer academies in Boise at the end of July.

“They do extra STEM-based curriculum and some online learning modules that the state has prepared, and if they successfully complete those, they earn the right to go to any or all of the state’s capstone events,” Bernards explained. “There are three around the state. This is the one that’s particularly located in north Idaho, so we have a bunch of students from Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls (and) Moscow.”

In a year not overshadowed by a pandemic, students would also pay a two-day visit to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

To begin Monday’s visit, Bernards said students grappled with the so-called “marshmallow challenge,” a time-intensive activity where they attempt to make the tallest structure that can support the weight of a marshmallow out of a prescribed amount of spaghetti, tape and string. This was followed by a campus tour, stopping by three different engineering labs, the launch of a high-altitude weather balloon and a presentation by a team of UI students working on an experiment that’s being sent to the International Space Station.

For the final leg of the event, students were furnished with kits to build a simple quad-copter drone and, after a little practice, they raced them around a pair of trees just outside the UI’s Integrated Research and Innovation Center.

With the fastest time, Coeur d’Alene High School student Louis McEvoy, 16, was awarded a candy bar and some NASA swag in addition to bragging rights.

McAvoy said his involvement in ISAS is an early step in his life goal of becoming a literal rocket scientist. While he said he’s always been fascinated with science and space, he is unsure where he first developed the interest.

“My best guess is I just watched ‘WALL-E’ a lot when I was little,” McEvoy joked.

“I want to build rockets; that’s the goal I’ve always said I wanted to do,” he said. “Wherever my education brings me, I’ve always been interested in space and things ... I just want to get involved in building rockets, somewhere, somehow.”

At the end of the afternoon event, all students were awarded scholarships from the UI’s College of Engineering worth about $500 in their second semester at UI, should they choose to attend the school.

Retired Post Falls teacher and ISAS Mentor Greg Cosette said he has been participating in the program since it began about 10 years ago and considers it a remarkable opportunity for students to network with professional scientists and come into contact with STEM careers. He said the trip to NASA Ames is a particularly powerful experience.

Cosette, who also teaches part-time with IDLA, said the program reaches large and small schools throughout the state and is a boon to any student interested in pursuing a career in a STEM-related field.

“We try to make it so that kids, even from the smallest outlying communities, are getting the same opportunities for this kind of STEM exposure and possibilities of STEM occupations,” he said. “Number one, it cranks them up, it’s a huge motivational factor to continuing their desire to work in STEM and learn in STEM, but it’s also a boost to get invitations from all these areas to join.”

Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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