Students at Vermont Avenue Elementary School were the first in the Los Angeles Unified School District to speak with astronauts in space through live ham radio.

The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Young Scientists Program and Hughes Amateur Radio Club partnered with the school to develop a STEM curriculum, emphasizing space-themed topics. YSP is a program through USC’s Joint Education Project which aims to address a significant lack of science education in schools in the South Los Angeles area.

The event, facilitated by the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station organization, allowed 10 students to ask International Space Station’s Italian commander Luca Parmitano questions about space while the station traveled over the school.

The spaceship was tracked by the ISS Above device which allowed students to see the altitude, range and direction, as well as when it sets on the other side of the horizon, according to inventor Liam Kennedy. He also explained that the space station passes by the school multiple times a day.

“The International Space Station passes by your school five to eight times every single day,” Kennedy said. “It does that because the space station is traveling so, so fast.”

The ISS Above device, which was donated to the school by Kennedy, told students the exact time the space station was directly above the school, and ARISS, the backup communication platform, connected them to the astronaut on the ISS to interview.

Jayden Baldwin was one of the students at Vermont Avenue Elementary School who had the opportunity to ask a question to an astronaut. (Photo by Ling Luo)
Jayden Baldwin was one of the students at Vermont Avenue Elementary School who had the opportunity to ask a question to an astronaut. (Photo by Ling Luo)

Fourth grader Jayden Baldwin asked Parmitano who he would thank for helping him accomplish his dreams.

“The whole world. It takes everybody to have a space station like this to work,” Parmitano responded. “I’d like to thank my wife and daughters, my country for educating me. I’d like to thank everybody, including you for asking that question.”

The interview, well known to the students as a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” happens 60 to 75 times globally every year, and only 15 to 20 times in the US, according to ARISS technical mentor Norman Thorn.

“I got a chance to attend one of these myself and I saw the effect it had on the students,” Thorn said. “That’s what gets me excited is seeing the results. The students that get so excited about things.”

Darrell Warren, former LAUSD teacher and veteran amateur radio operator, explained that he hopes his volunteer work with underprivileged students helps more students get a ham radio license and learn more about science.

“As far as the interactive ability for kids to do this, I think, can really inspire kids. They’re really fired up about it,” he said. “I think it generates enthusiasm and its geared for what they do in the world nowadays. This is a world of technology.”

DJ Kast, STEM director of JEP, said that students prepared for this interaction for a few weeks through lesson plans and question competitions to choose the school’s top 10.

“All of our programs partner with Title 1 schools and it’s crucial, especially for elementary school students—so much of the data shows that the earlier you start liking science, the longer it’ll stay throughout their K-12 experience,” she said.

Kast also added that she sees all students as future scientists. She hopes to continue to show students the opportunities available in the STEM field and to provide them with more resources.

Correction: a previous version of the story incorrectly used “hand radio” instead of “ham radio."

Correction: the headline has been updated to reflect that the group of students were the first elementary students at LAUSD to contact astronauts.