Mars Ready? Parish Episcopal Team Wins NASA Challenge

School builds two vehicles as annual international co-ed STEAM contest goes virtual

Parish Episcopal School’s journey to the top of NASA standings began eight years ago with the founding of a rover team.

“Our first years, we weren’t that good, but we pushed through that and had a lot of fun,” coach Jenn Makins said. “We learned a lot and even managed to win awards.”

Those wins included a fifth-place high school division finish in the Human Exploration Rover Challenge (HERC) in 2017. That year’s rover went on display at the Perot Museum of Nature in Dallas to inspire other students to explore STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics).

However, this year Parish exceeded that by far, with one of its teams named the overall winner with a first-place finish in the high school division and a project review award. Its other team won a social media award.

Those wins came in April, but the trophies arrived more recently.

It has been an eight-year journey, and the kids have passed down information to each other.

Jenn Makins

“It’s been a few months, and it’s still kind of surreal,” Makins said. “The kids were jumping up and down, and fist-bumping each other, and hugging.”

HERC, meant to inspire high school and college students, tasks U.S. and international teams “to design, engineer, and test a human-powered rover on a course that simulates the terrain found on rocky bodies in the solar system,” according to nasa.gov.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, usually hosts the competition, but the event went virtual this year because of the pandemic.

“The challenges you faced with this competition go beyond anything we’ve seen before, from designing the wheels and mission tools to executing mission requirements like sample retrievals and deploying instruments,” center director Jody Singer said in announcing the winners.

Parish teams built two pedal-powered rovers – one from Chromoly steel and the other with a composite frame combining fiber and insulation – and created three courses to simulate a rocky extraterrestrial terrain.

Rovers must complete the courses and assigned tasks in less than eight minutes and have both a male and female operator. That’s not a problem at Parish, where the program has high gender diversity with 40% girls.

In 2019, working with Dallas-based Lyda Hill Philanthropies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science selected Makins as one of the 125 IF/THEN ambassadors. These “women innovators” from throughout the nation help promote STEM education and careers to girls.

The Parish coaching staff also includes assistant coach Fallon Ahearn and coach Dave Cribbs, who founded the Parish program with Mankins in 2014.

“It has been an eight-year journey, and the kids have passed down information to each other,” Makins said.

Work will resume at the beginning of the fall semester as the next teams prepare to go to Alabama in March 2022.

“I’m as proud as I can be of the kids and the coaches,” Makins said. “We’re all resting, but we’re ready for next year and the next group.”

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