Ground Control to Golden Oak: Montessori School Dials Up The Space Station
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
On Monday, October 28, students, parents and community members at Golden Oak Montessori School in Castro Valley, CA, packed together in the school auditorium to make a long-distance call. But it wasn’t to an out-of-state relative, or even a Montessori school from another country—students spoke to Astronaut Col. Andrew Morgan, currently stationed in the International Space Station (ISS).
There’s a YouTube video of the call here—the actual call starts at the 17:20 mark.
The chance to talk to a working astronaut isn’t just exciting, it is rare. Only a handful of schools nationwide get the chance to do so each year. A Golden Oak parent, Alessio Sangalli, who is an amateur HAM radio operator, made the school aware of the opportunity to apply to contact the ISS through Amateur Radio on International Space Station (ARISS), an organization that coordinates and helps carry out calls between amateur radio operators and the ISS.
Once Golden Oak applied and was accepted last February, the countdown to the big day was on. There is a lot that goes into making a call to space and many educational opportunities to go with it.
“We tried to make it as all-encompassing of an experience for the kids as possible,” said Golden Oak Operations and Data Analysist India Rodriguez. “This was a big deal and we wanted to try and squeeze every last drop out of the experience for these kids as we could.”
While the actual call to the ISS was made via an antenna in Maryland that patched Golden Oak in (there weren’t enough HAM radio operators on site to do the call directly from the school), thanks to Sangalli, students were well aware of the technology used to make the connection.
Sangalli brought his HAM radio antenna—a 20 foot tall, 30-foot wide contraption strapped to the roof of his car—to Golden Oak, and took turns with each class working on moving the antenna around the blacktop and finding the right coordinates to home in on to pick up radio signals from all over the world.
Teachers at the school took the opportunity to teach students about space exploration, astronomy, physics and almost anything else they could think of related to space and the ISS. The school hosted ISS viewing parties at a local park where they gathered together to watch the station pass overhead, just as it would pass over Maryland when they made their call. The October date also meant that classrooms had just finished with the first great lesson when the call took place. Students’ models, diagrams and research projects about the planets and the solar system lined the walls of the auditorium when the school gathered together to talk to Col. Morgan.
The call also provided both unexpected learning opportunities for students and a chance for Golden Oak to connect with the local community in interesting ways.
Because contact with the ISS only lasts for about 12 minutes, not every student had an opportunity to ask questions. Classrooms each democratically elected a student to represent them. This meant standing up in front of the classroom to give a speech about why they wanted to be their classroom’s representative, then standing up again on stage in front of their peers and community and asking a question that would be broadcast over the airwaves and streamed on the internet for all to hear. That’s a lot of pressure! Several students mentioned to Rodriguez that they overcame real fear of public speaking in order to pursue the chance to talk to an astronaut—and it was worth it.
Additionally, Golden Oak students sourced questions from all over the community, taking submissions at their annual science fair, accepting suggestions from students and teachers and eventually generating a massive list of potential queries for their conversation with Col. Morgan. The elected students not only had the responsibility of asking the questions, but picking a solid selection of questions from the list, refining them and preparing them for delivery.
When the big day came, Golden Oak was ready, with help from people all over the country. Sangali was standing by to assist, and an ARISS volunteer from North Carolina drove across the country to help make sure everything went smoothly. HAM radio operators in Maryland picked up the signal as the ISS came over the horizon, radioed Col. Morgan and patched him through to California.
“Golden Oak Montessori, welcome aboard the International Space Station.”
Col. Morgan’s voice rang out through the auditorium speakers and after months of preparation, it was finally time to begin the conversation.
Students asked a wide range of questions of the astronaut. What do astronauts do for fun? How do they communicate with each other given that they’re from different countries? Do they get any fresh produce on board? While the call itself was short, it more than lived up to expectations. The chance to bring so many people together to create an important moment in the lives of so many students doesn’t come along every day, but thanks to buy-in from many, many people, students at Golden Oak all walked away with an unforgettable experience.
“The level of community and parent involvement was very high,” said Rodriguez. “We all appreciated that this was such a unique experience for our kids.”