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Mount Pleasant students design space helmet, named finalists in national NASA competition

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Wando NASA competitoin

A student-led team at Wando High School has advanced to the final round of a NASA engineering competition. Louanne Murphy/Provided

What started out as a project led by a group of students at Wando High School could one day be used as part of a NASA deep space mission.

After designing a space helmet to protect astronauts from harmful solar radiation, Wando’s student-led team was selected as one of 18 finalists in the NASA Wear competition, a nationwide event that challenges middle and high school students to design and create wearable space technology.

The best part? Components of the best designs might one day be used in NASA’s Moon to Mars mission.

“It's just insane to think that NASA could use our designs, or part of our design, to actually be put into use,” said Annabelle McIlwain, a junior at Wando who worked on the competition team.

This year, students had the option to choose between designing headgear to protect against high-energy radiation during a solar particle event or a multipurpose garment to help reduce radiation exposure.

The Wando team, led by junior Louanne Murphy, opted to design a space helmet. After work on the project kicked off in January, the 10-student team met twice a week for two hours a day to research materials and develop their design. During the final two weeks leading up to the project’s submission, the team met almost every day.

“We put in so much time and effort into this in so much research in calculation, just to have all that work pay off ... was absolutely insane,” McIlwain said.

Making the victory even sweeter: Murphy said the Wando group almost felt like an underdog compared with some of the 66 other schools across the country that submitted designs.

A lot of the other teams were recruiting students to join and had multiple teachers on board to help, she said. The Wando team had two teachers who helped facilitate the competition logistics, but the project design was entirely student-led.

"We are extremely proud of our students. They mobilized and organized this whole competition team," said Wando engineering teacher Chris Sjolander.

The team ultimately settled on a model that combined design elements of traditional bicycle helmets and riot-shield-style headgear. The space helmet is mostly made of polyethylene, a form of common plastic that successfully blocks solar radiation.

Now that finalists have been named, teams will eventually be tasked with building a physical prototype of their design. This stage of the process was originally expected to wrap up around the end of May, Sjolander said, but widespread school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays. 

The competition is expected to eventually ramp back up in the fall. Once the prototype is made and sent off for review in August, judges will invite the 10 best teams to a NASA center for a final ceremony.

The Wando students haven’t finalized the prototype plans yet, but Murphy said it could potentially involve a combination of 3D printing and sewing materials.

Murphy, 17, first learned about the NASA competition via social media. She’s always been fascinated by innovation and space exploration, she said. She first learned how to do basic computer coding in sixth grade before picking it back up in high school.

Last week, she was one of the featured speakers at the annual Microsoft Build 2020, a large-scale conference for developers and independent software vendors.

“Being invited to do it this year was a bit of a shock,” she said. “It hasn't even sunk in yet that that's something that I actually did.”

Since the conference was hosted entirely online this year, attendance skyrocketed, she said. More than 200,000 people tuned in to watch her 30 minute segment.

“Public speaking has never been my thing, because I'm really quiet and I keep to myself,” Murphy said.

Thankfully, she said, her session went off without a hitch.

“I think that my shyness just went away. And because it was programming and because I was with those people, something just clicked and I was able to do it all of a sudden,” she said.

It’s vital for young women to have positive role models in science, technology and engineering fields, said LaVanda Brown, executive director of the YWCA of Greater Charleston. Her organization sponsors a dozen or so after-school, girls-only coding clubs.

“Seeing a young woman who is that confident and who is excelling in that field should certainly be inspiring, particularly for the girls that we’re working with in our coding programs,” Brown said.

The industry is booming, and skilled computer science jobs are in high demand. But women, especially those of color, are often severely underrepresented in the field.

Wando’s NASA Wear team has about equal gender representation, McIlwain said, but most of her engineering classes usually only have a handful of girls enrolled.

“To just feel not represented in those classes makes me want to go into engineering more, to show young girls and actually basically everybody that women are a huge part in the engineering force and can do the exact same job as a man,” she said.

The NASA Wear competition is organized by Oklahoma State University, through the NASA STEM Pathways Activities – Consortium for Education. After being reviewed by NASA personnel, 10 winning teams will be selected from the 18 prototypes submitted: five garments and five helmets. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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