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For STEM program at Westminster’s St. John Catholic School, the sky is not the limit

St. John Catholic School STEM teacher Clare Hoerl, and from left, Mike Saylor, seventh grader Kendall Tittle, kindergartner Ava Saylor, Taylor Benicewicz and Riley Saylor, both seventh graders, carry luminaries into the four-acre field at Fallen Willow Farm in Taneytown where students have plotted a giant eagle logo as part of their bid to earn a downlink from astronauts on the International Space Station Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.
St. John Catholic School STEM teacher Clare Hoerl, and from left, Mike Saylor, seventh grader Kendall Tittle, kindergartner Ava Saylor, Taylor Benicewicz and Riley Saylor, both seventh graders, carry luminaries into the four-acre field at Fallen Willow Farm in Taneytown where students have plotted a giant eagle logo as part of their bid to earn a downlink from astronauts on the International Space Station Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. (Dylan Slagle)

After several months of planning and work, students at St. John Catholic School this weekend can enjoy a large piece of art they created to catch the attention of astronauts at the International Space Station.

Every year, the space station hosts live educational downlinks for schools across the world. The in-flight educational downlinks are a tool created by NASA to connect students with astronauts, enabling them to learn firsthand what life is like in space and encouraging STEM initiatives in education.

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Each downlink is a 20-minute session either hosted live or live with prerecorded questions from students. In order to be selected, schools must develop a unique proposal and submit it to to NASA.

Eighth grade students at St. John in Westminster designed an eagle, the school’s mascot, and an American flag design using Google Earth. Seventh- and eighth grade students worked together to plot the points on a 4-acre parcel at Fallen Willow farm in Taneytown. From there, the students connected the dots and a parent volunteer mowed the pattern into field.

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“It was very complicated but the kids did it,” said Clare Hoerl, a STEM instructional leader at the school. “Everything has been led by the students.”

Hoerl said the students have been creating STEM projects using NASA guided lessons. They have been learning about what it’s like to live in space and building models of the space station. They hope the astronauts will see their design at the farm.

In 2018, Hoerl said, a farmer cut an image of astronaut Thomas Stafford into a 10-acre plot and it was photographed from a satellite 400 miles up.

“We are doing something similar to that at Fallen Willow farm in Taneytown,” she said.

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On Saturday, the community is invited to an event at the farm, where the design will be illuminated with tea lights while drone pictures are taken from above.

“Food trucks are coming and we’ll have glow necklaces for the kids,” Hoerl said. “It’s about really being together as a community.”

In addition, students and other attendees will be able to view a live Zoom session with the National Weather Service in Washington D.C. from 5:30 to 6 p.m., as they release a weather balloon.

“It is crucial that our youth gain an understanding of how STEM is used in the world today and learn that a STEM education extends much farther beyond the classroom,” Hoerl said, adding she hopes this opportunity inspires students to “engage in the world they live in and become more environmentally conscious.”

STEM programs educate students in four specific disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with a focus on hands-on learning and real-world applications.

If St. John is awarded the downlink session, it will be shared with all schools within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Awards will be announced early next year.

“We do our best, submit it and hope to win,” Hoerl said, “but even if we don’t, this has been a tremendous learning experience.”

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