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Teaching Science

A school in orbit

Teachers and students in the State of São Paulo's coastal area build a satellite

AZEITE DE LEOSAt the start of this month, as soon as they come back from their holidays, the students 6th grade students at the local municipal school Tancredo de Almeida Neves, in the town of Ubatuba, on the northern coast of the State of São Paulo, already know that they will have to organize themselves into groups and begin constructing the printed circuit boards for the prototype of an artificial satellite that one of the mathematics teachers, Candido Osvaldo de Moura, decided to build last year.

During periods outside school hours, the 108 children aged 10 and 11 will also have classes in electronics and IT in order to be able to program the on-board computer that controls the satellite. The teams that show the greatest ability will make the final four circuit boards for the satellite that weighs 750 grams, is 13 centimeters long and is expected to go into space before the end of this year. Once in orbit, at an altitude of 310 kilometers, the satellite should continuously emit a message – the plan is for it to be in Portuguese, English and Spanish – that is to be chosen by a competition that will mobilize the school?s 1,200 students and roughly 100 teachers. As a prize, the author of the best phrase will get to see the satellite’s launch in the United States.

In order to get to this point, Moura had to overcome many obstacles. His journey began in February 2010, when he read in a science magazine that a company in the United States, Interorbital Systems, was selling satellite kits called TubeSats, which could remain in orbit for a three-month period. One of the first people that Moura told of his intention was his English teacher, Emerson Yaegashi, who immediately gave his support. When he told his students that they were going to be working with real scientists, they also liked his plan.

“We held a conference call and with the help of Emerson and one of the school’s English teachers, Mariana César, the children spoke in English with Interorbital’s directors, Roderick and Randa Milliron, who were thrilled with the idea. According to them, we are the youngest team in the world in the field of space research. Generally, these satellites are assembled by university students. They told us that they could not help us much, due to the distance, and that we would need technical support,” explains Moura, who then went straight to the door of Ubatuba’s mayor, Eduardo de Souza Cesar, and said: “We want to enter the space race.” According to him, the mayor said that he would give his support and, even better, he was prepared to help raise the U$ 8.6 thousand needed to buy the kit with the satellite’s basic parts. The budget included another U$ 14 thousand for trips to the United States, the first of which is to be made by a limited group of students and teachers, and is scheduled to take place in May of this year.

A group of the city’s businesspeople that they spoke to covered the expenses, with one of them transferring the money to the school’s Parents’ and Teachers’ Association (APM). The bureaucracy was another challenge. Moura spoke with the school’s directors, with the city’s politicians as well as with a banker friend and eventually managed to register the APM as an importer and exporter with the Federal Revenue service. “We took a different path, which caused difficulties, but a lot of people have helped. We have had to prepare documents and read contracts in English,” says Moura.

He also had to struggle to get technical support from the National Space Research Institute (Inpe), a federal agency whose head office is in the city of São José dos Campos, in inner-state São Paulo, 130 kilometers from Ubatuba, and which constructs and manages satellites in Brazil. His e-mails were received by the engineering and space technology division, the members of which set a meeting with Moura and offered astronomy and space technology courses for the teachers who had already signed up for the project, including the science teachers, Marcelo de Mári, Rogério Stejanov Bueno and Adriana Cabral Barbosa. “We are in the process of completing a technological cooperation agreement between Inpe and our school,” he says.

As the seven teachers in the group did not understand electronics well enough to construct the boards for the prototypes or the final satellite, Moura sought out a robotics and software development company based in São Paulo city, Globalcode, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the company’s directors, Vinicius Senger and Yara Mascarenhas Hornos Senger, lived in Ubatuba. After coordinating the basic electronic training for the teachers, Vinicius and Yara began to voluntarily help the school’s team design, shape and solder the boards for the prototypes of the satellite.

Together, under the coordination of the teachers Mariléa Borine D’Angelo and Patrícia Patural, they created a board that was named Ubatubino, which can be reused, with other functions, and which the children themselves can produce, using open source programs and simple tools, such as an iron. “The children are making small computers, which have a capacity similar to those that the astronauts used in the 1960s when they landed on the Moon,” says Vinicius Senger. “It’s totally feasible to build educational satellites in Brazil, without any need for imports, and to encourage, for example, competitions between schools.” Sérgio Mascarenhas, coordinator of the Advanced Studies Institute (IEA) of the University of São Paulo (USP) in São Carlos, has enthusiastically followed the Ubatuba satellite?s construction: “Support for teachers’ initiatives is the way to improve education in Brazil,” he comments.

Recognized as pioneering in the January edition of SatMagazine, the experience of the school in Ubatuba has fueled the debate about setting up other courses and teaching activities. “For the first time last year this school’s students took part in the Brazilian Astronomy Olympiad,” Moura celebrates. “We want to change the way we teach science, including mathematics. In my opinion, the job of the school and of the teachers is to show how the real world works, using exciting, real-life problems, so that the kids can see the practical results of what they are studying.”

The satellite’s launch, which is scheduled for March, may be delayed, as some of the parts have not yet arrived from the United States. “The people at Inpe told me that every satellite is delayed,” says Moura, who is not just concerned with meeting the planned dates. “The most important part of this job is not what is going to go up into space, but what is going to stay in the minds of the students here on Earth. We have shown that a lot can be done and that they should think big. Anyone who builds a satellite when they’re 11 years old is going to feel calmer when they face other challenges.”