Eek Students Solve Problems In Outer Space for City X Project

by Ben Matheson on October 25, 2013

Working on Blueprints in Eek, AK October 23, 2013 Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK RadioStudents in the Kuskokwim community of Eek are putting their heads together to solve problems in outer space. Citizens in a theoretical settlement need help with things like transportation, food production, and energy. And they’re in luck–Eek’s students know a thing or two about life in remote locations. The community of 300 sits on the tundra near the mouth of the Kuskokwim, hundreds of miles from the road system. KYUK’s Ben Matheson has the story.

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Students in Ms. Julia’s class heard a plea from interstellar space. The Mayor of the first city in outer space-City X needs help.

So begins the City X project, a workshop to teach design skills and creative problem solving. Each student is assigned a citizen with a particular problem like medical needs, power generation and getting enough food. From there, students empathize and brainstorm solutions. Alex is in 5th grade:

“My character Marek and his ship’s heater went out and they’re cold,” said Alex.

Alex has filled up a piece of paper with pictures, notes, and rough schematics. He’s leaning toward development of an item called “the heat shot.” He chooses that over the heat orb, or a forcefield-based system.

3rd grader Kristen is trying to help Malika:

“Her friend is trying to grow plants but she has to carry water all the way from the river in buckets,” said Kristin.

Ideas include a robot, a jetpack, a cart and water heater connected to a snowmachine. And because in brainstorming, anything goes:

“A flying pig!”

The creative juices are flowing, and this is what Libby Falck, the Director of the City X Project had in mind when she and the team planned the workshop.

“To hopefully put them in the mindset of being change makers,” said Falck. “How can I see a problem and then actually come up with a solution and implement that solution.”

Once the students have a page full of ideas, they get their hands dirty with chunks of bright colored clay. Within about 15 minutes, 4th grader Nathan has sculpted an armored bodysuit known as iron clothes:

“If he falls from the tree, his arms or legs or head won’t break,” said Nathan.

The space colony concept is still far off in the future. But not THAT far. The City X team brought a 3D printer. It’s basically a tool that can build a real physical object when it’s fed the digital instructions. It’s perfect for collaboration across the globe. As example, the team prints an object designed by a student thousand of miles away in Wisconsin.

Brett Schilke is Director of IdeaCO, the nonprofit that puts on the workshops.

“3D printing technology is completely changing every industry, and is going to revolutionize many parts of our lives. It’s not even completely out of reach to think that in their lifetimes, they could actually be doing this …we could be traveling to other planets with 3D printers and trying to create things to that are solving problems when we get there,” said Schilke.

And that could happen sooner rather than later. One student project from a this year’s workshop will be sent up to the international space station and printed in space.

“So that’s really exciting for the kids, obviously,” said Schilke.

But back to earth and Ms Julia’s classroom. It’s time to draw the inventions in three different perspectives and begin modeling with 3D design software.

The students of course pick it up amazingly fast and within a few minutes have rough mock-ups. The third and final day of the project involves fine-tuning the models and printing out objects. Matthew Straub is a director for the workshop.

“We have the printer right there in the classroom, and it’s operating, it’s actually printing something right before their eyes, said Straub. “Kids always respond to that, because it’s there, it’s real.”

And life in Eek is pretty real too. The remoteness of the community requires a high degree of self sufficiency. Students live in homes with no running water and a huge part of their diet comes their traditional subsistence foods.

Their teacher, Ms. Julia Oschwald knew the City X team through a friend and helped bring the project to Eek. She says her students bring their unique perspectives to the challenge.

“That helps them think outside the box. Kids in Wisconsin might not have to go to out and get their water and do all that process.They have different knowledge bases and backgrounds, so I think they understood the problems in different ways,” said Ms. Julia.

In any case, the citizens of City X are lucky to have the help from Ms. Julia’s students. Life is much better in space if you have a food-unrottening shotgun, and a platypus car.

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