“Failure is not an option” are the words that defined the 2017-2018 Isle of Hope K8 School Student Astronaut Club’s journey. From the first day of practice, when over 70 students in the middle school signed up to be a part, until the very last day of the season…at the forefront of everyone’s mind, the goal was clear…make it back to the Student Astronaut Challenge National Finals to be held at NASA in February 2018.
The season began in September with practices three days a week. Students studied and prepared for the Regional Challenge held at Richmond Hill Middle School. Eventually, 20 students competed and qualified two of the six Georgia teams moving on to the National Competition!
In the span of four short months, the teams worked 12-18 hours a week, preparing to compete in four challenges – Launch to Land Challenge (Space Shuttle Atlantis Simulator), Landing Challenge (Space Shuttle Atlantis simulator), a Lab Challenge (Cleaning Up Space Junk) and an Engineering Challenge.
The two teams came to be referred to as the “Bigs” and the “Littles”. The “Bigs” crew (7th/8th graders) was composed of three returning members from last year’s team and three new members – Owen Walsh, Jeaneva Moore, Jonah Tinfow, Ellie Nease, Grant Baxter, and Henry Fowler. The “Littles” simulator crew was composed of all 6th/7th grade girls (Nijma Lara, Heba Lara, Cameron Huggins, LaMyla Hill, SaRay Williams), and 6th grader Wesley Boyette was the “flyer” for the team. Alternates who prepared to compete for the teams, include Braylon Webster, Xavier Rodriguez, Kelsey McKinley, Siera Johnson, Keelyn Stroupe, and Teric Blackshear.
Ms. Carolyn Rethwisch (Isle of Hope middle grades math/science teacher), Dr. Barbara Serianni (College of Education at Armstrong/Georgia Southern), and Mr. Wade Smith (IOH STEAM Director/teacher) led the teams. Ms. Margaret Nease (Armstrong/Georgia Southern faculty member) worked with the “Bigs” on their research paper and skit for the lab presentation. The Landings community members Bob and Carol Nickels provided encouragement each step of the way, and Bob worked with the “flyers” – students who would be competing by landing the Space Shuttle Atlantis either by sight or “flying blind” (instruments only) every afternoon for weeks. Finally, Commander Shane Kimbrough (Shuttle Commander for International Space Station Mission #49 and #50) helped provide valuable insight and guidance for multiple aspects of the competition.
While students worked to gain the skills necessary to compete at a national level, the teams also worked to raise $12,500 to get them to the competition. Community partners stepped up to help. Bobcat of Savannah, SAME Engineers, Armstrong State University, McDonalds, Isle of Hope News and many others – gave to support the cause. Then, the staff, faculty, and families of Isle of Hope School generously contributed over $7000.00. Coach Rethwisch reminded the students, “You do your jobs and the Isle of Hope Community will get you there.”
Together, the mission was accomplished. The IOH Fiddlernauts left for NASA in Cape Canaveral, Florida on February 18th and competed against 12 other schools February 19th – 21st. The year previously (2016-2017), the IOH Fiddlernauts won 2nd place in the Launch and Land Challenge. By the end of the second day of competition in 2018, Isle of Hope qualified BOTH teams’ simulator crews in the Semi-Finals…out of the top five teams in the nation, IOH had secured two spots!
In the simulator semi-finals challenge, students must recognize and remediate life threatening emergencies. The IOH Fiddlernaut “Bigs,” once again qualified for the finals…securing one of the top three spots in the nation. The IOH “Bigs” also qualified for the Landing Finals (Owen Walsh and Henry Fowler)!!
The night before the last day of competition was full of last minute preparations but in the midst of that preparation, the #Fiddlernauts were surprised by a visit from NASA Commander Shane Kimbrough. “When your students meet their hero...the astronaut who has invested in them... the one they consider ‘their astronaut’,” explains Coach Rethwisch, “Then, he spends almost an hour with them...encouraging/congratulating them, answering questions, taking pictures and signing shirts/hats...everything you’ve worked so hard for becomes clear. As he spent time talking to our kids about those who inspired him - his grandfather and great men during the Apollo days – he was, in fact, continuing that circle, as he inspired our kids. It was an amazing experience to be a part of and I’m so thankful for his investment into their lives.”
On the final day of competition, following the final challenge, the Isle of Hope #Fiddlernauts headed to the award ceremony where they took home 2nd place in the nation in the Space Shuttle Simulator Launch to Land Challenge and 2nd place in the nation (losing by just 1 point) in the Landing Finals. The award, however, that Coach Carolyn Rethwisch is most proud of is the Apollo 13 Flight Team Award, given for the first time ever in competition.
“As I think back to the last couple of days...this is the award I am most proud of,” explains Coach Rethwisch. “I will take 2nd place in every competition ever held, if my kids show up!!” The Apollo 13 award is given to those who risk it all and work together. The plaque reads, ‘The Apollo 13 Flight Team Award...presented to the team that demonstrated the resilient spirit and teamwork exemplified by Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise of Apollo 13.’ These men are giants in aerospace history, the heroes of Shane Kimbrough who shared with the students that it was the Apollo program that helped inspire him to pursue the astronaut field.
Coach Rethwisch says, “Last year we learned, ‘Failure is NOT an option.’ This year, our kids lived out that motto. We are so blessed to know them, teach them, and take this journey with them. We’re raising champions who give it their all…every single day. At Isle of Hope, we are raising young men and women of integrity...who pursue the unimaginable. It took a village this year to help us help our kids achieve their goals. I’m so thankful for our village and so blessed to be a part of the #Fiddlernaut journey this year.”
To see more photos from the competition click here.