Gavin Morgenegg and Scott Crowner were too focused on their presentation to take note of the legendary astronaut sitting in the audience.
Morgenegg and Crowner, seniors at Eaglecrest High School, were featured speakers at a forum for the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C. in July, and they had plenty to talk about. The pair were acting as representatives of a larger Eaglecrest team composed of current and former students who successfully designed and built a science experiment that traveled into the cosmos.
In 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft launched from Florida carrying more than 5,000 pounds of equipment and experiments bound for the International Space Station. Included in that cargo was an experiment designed and built by Morgenegg and Crowner, along with fellow Eaglecrest High School students Lars Dreith, Riley Abbot, Tom Brachtenbach and Ben Scheffer, who worked with astronomy and space science teacher David Schlichting and pre-engineering teacher Ross Ericson. The experiment was a result of the school's partnership with the NASA HUNCH program (short for High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware), and it specifically sought to explore the effect on microgravity on the electrolysis of silver nitrate.
Morgenegg and Crowner were in Washington to offer insights about the results of the experiment, data that was carefully parsed and examined by scientific crews from the School of Mines in Golden as well as the University of Wisconsin. The pair was so intent on explaining the specifics of the experiment and its design during their presentation on July 20 that they didn't realize that Buzz Aldrin was right in the front row, among the crowd of hundreds of engineers, astronauts, researchers and other luminaries of the scientific world.
"My brother was actually sitting in the front and gesturing at me, pointing to Buzz Aldrin," Morgenegg, said recalling his brother's reaction to the presence of an astronaut who helped redefine the boundaries of human exploration. "I looked directly at Buzz Aldrin. I totally saw him … The rest of the audience was astronauts, rocket scientists, people who have worked on ISS parts. We met and talked to the head of the Space Shuttle Program for 12 years."
Rubbing elbows with scientific royalty was cool, but it was also a mere capstone in a series of incredible experiences for the Eaglecrest students involved in the silver nitrate experiment since 2014. The HUNCH program offered them an entry point into college-level research and lab work, it gave them the opportunity to travel to Florida and watch a rocket launch in person. The program was a bridge to innovative learning, education that had real-world implications and immediate results. Most impressively, the HUNCH work gave this group of high school students the chance to send their work into space.
"We had the chance to work on real-world, real-space problems," Crowner said. "I know I want to go into engineering, either mechanical or chemical, and this experience has certainly streamlined that."
The experience had a similar impact for Morgenegg, who signed on to the project during his sophomore year. The silver nitrate experiment had been approved by NASA, and Morgenegg and Crowner helped expand and refine the initial experiment proposed by Dreith, Abbot, Brachtenbach and Scheffer to make it space-ready. Over the course of the next two years, the team finalized the experiment, and the Eaglecrest students traveled to Florida and watched a rocket carrying their hard work blast off into space.
"The biggest thing for me was actually going down and watching the launch from a pier in the middle of Banana Creek Bay and listening to the countdown and all of us getting really excited," Morgenegg said. "I'm probably going to remember that for the rest of my life, because it was the coolest thing I've ever seen, watching this 200-foot building filled with explosives lift off the ground and somehow make it up into space, with something we built on the very top of it."
The HUNCH work is liable to have an influence on the academic future of both Crowner and Morgenegg, just as it did on the four Eaglecrest alums who've leveraged their work with NASA in college and beyond. According to Schlichting, who's kept up with Dreith, Abbot, Brachtenbach and Scheffer after their graduation, the impact of the work hasn't dimmed with the students' transition to college.
This work is a sterling example of innovation in education, Schlichting said, in the sense that it's had an impact far beyond the classroom. Students are still drawing lessons and benefits at the college level; their hard work, research and field work is opening doors to higher-level learning and professional opportunities long after they've earned their high school diplomas.
"As high school teachers, we're very used to writing letters of recommendation at the high school level. We usually stop hearing from them after that," Schlichting said. "Because of the significance of this program and its affiliation with NASA, my gosh, these students are still using this on their resumes not just to get into college but for graduate level work and professional internships. It's amazing that it has that much of an influence on the future careers that these students are pursuing."
Click here to watch a video of Morgenegg and Crowner's presentation to the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C. in July.