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Out-of-this-world learning: Canyon Ridge students team up with NASA

Out-of-this-world learning: Canyon Ridge students team up with NASA

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High schoolers making spaceship parts

Junior Jett Day, front, and senior Ty Silvaz calibrate machinery during their automated manufacturing class Feb. 25 at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls. The class is working on parts that will be used on the international space station. 

TWIN FALLS — A high-pitched whine filled the room as students huddled around a machine, watching a bit grind down a small, shiny block of aluminum slathered in cloudy liquid coolant.

That block of aluminum, not much bigger than a 9-volt battery, could be bound for the international space station when the students are done machining it into the right shape.

High schoolers making spaceship parts

A nearly complete handrail fixture cap is seen during an automated manufacturing class Feb. 25 at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls. The part is a piece of a handle that astronauts will use to pull themselves around in zero-gravity. 

Canyon Ridge High School’s automated manufacturing class is making a piece of a handle for NASA this semester. Students are making the same part 30 times, from scratch, and those parts will someday be used by astronauts to pull themselves around in zero-gravity.

“When I first found out I was going to be making a part for space, I was definitely on board with that,” student Ty Silvaz said. “It gives me a chance to put my skills to the test.”

Canyon Ridge is participating in NASA’s HUNCH program, which aims to give high schoolers the chance to work on projects that literally go into space. There are 13 other schools making parts this year and 263 schools participating around the country in a variety of ways.

High schoolers making spaceship parts

Teacher Nathan Hyer shows how the part they're creating will work during his automated manufacturing class Feb. 25 at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls.

Even though students are making a part that isn’t flight-essential, the project requires them to apply everything they’ve learned in the class the past three years — this class is made up of juniors and seniors. And even though the part doesn’t look especially complex, it requires the students to be more precise than they’ve ever been before.

“It shows you what it’s going to be like in the real world,” Jett Day said. “You can’t be half an inch, or an inch, off. You have to be exact, on the dot.”

Normally when kids machine parts in this class, they have a hair’s width of wiggle room. In other words, the final dimensions of their work can be a smidge off.

NASA standards are more stringent. The parts can only be off by 0.001 inches.

“That’s roughly a third of the size of an average human hair,” teacher Nathan Hyer said.

Mastering machining

This is the first time Canyon Ridge has participated in NASA’s HUNCH program. Hyer said working on this part brings a lot of benefits for students.

For one, it’ll teach the importance of precision. Hyer also hopes making a part that will go into space will encourage more kids to take the class for the full three years.

High schoolers making spaceship parts

Computer software shows a 3D rendering of the part the class is creating during their automated manufacturing class Feb. 25 at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls.

“I think it helps (students) see the vision of what we can actually do,” Hyer said.

Making the part is also a good way for students to simulate the work they’ll be doing in the real world, if they choose to get a job as a machinist.

“I’m definitely going to use this in the future,” Chris Campos said. “Because I definitely plan on going into this type of field.”

Making this part for NASA is hard work. It will take the class about half the semester, Hyer said.

First, each student had to develop a 3D design of the part on a computer program. After that, they had to build tool paths. Essentially, that means students had to tell the machine which bits to use, and where to use them on the block of aluminum. You can’t just plug the design into the machine, you have to tell it how to whittle away at the metal, too. Just designing the part and the tool paths in the computer took weeks.

Most students in the class plan on using their automated manufacturing skills as part of their profession.

“It looks really good on a resume,” James Mayfield said. “It can help with getting jobs.”

Classes like this one can help local kids find good, high-paying jobs right out of school. That’s why the state of Idaho is pushing for more classes like this one that offer career technical education opportunities. Because the automated machining class requires so much computer work, students can earn a college-level computer credit, too.

High schoolers making spaceship parts

Senior James Mayfield smirks during his automated manufacturing class Feb. 25 at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls.

Even though it’s held at Canyon Ridge, any high schooler in the Magic Valley can take the class if they can manage the commute. The automated manufacturing class is also part of the Artec charter school program.

Hyer and the students hope the class can be part of the HUNCH program next year, too, and they plan on tracking their work when it leaves Earth in a few years.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in the class,” Mayfield said, “and I’ve taken it all four years.”

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