Warhill students' toolbag design a finalist in NASA contest

Staff writer

In what looks to be one small step for Warhill High School and one giant leap for the sciences in Williamsburg-James City County Schools, a tool bag designed by two students from Warhill has been named a finalist in the NASA HUNCH program.

HUNCH — High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware — is an annual contest sponsored by NASA that encourages high schools across the country to design equipment and software, with the eventual winner’s designs being used and tested aboard the International Space Station.

When Warhill senior Thomas Mowry and freshman Chase Manns first heard about HUNCH and the opportunity to build something to be used by astronauts, they knew they wanted to work on it.

“What we came up with was essentially a tool bag, though given it’s to be used in space, the design took some interesting turns to adapt it to zero gravity,” Manns said. “Lots of velcros, straps, pegs and latches to keep things in place … as well as lots of interchangeable modules.”

Beginning in January, through trial and error, the final design was, in their own words, flexible, foldable and functional. From planning things out to lots of hands-on time with Warhill’s 3-D printers, the pair worked to fine tune their design from concept to construction.

“All of the spines and tools for the toolbag were 3-D printed right here at Warhill,” Mowry said. “Working with the 3-D printers has been amazing. Anything you can design you can make, and it allows for both greater precision, as well as more room for error as you perfect things, and that’s been invaluable for testing parts for our tool bag prototype.”

After submitting the final design to NASA in February, they didn’t expect much to come of it. Three weeks later, they received an email from NASA telling them their tool pouch was one of 10 design finalists from across the country.

“We were stunned when we got the email that we were finalists,” Mowry said. “We kept telling ourselves ‘our space bag may be heading to space!’ and it still didn’t feel quite real, but when it did, we were both over the moon.”

John Aughenbaugh, who teaches engineering and design at Warhill and has sponsored the pair’s work, said watching them take it from conception to creation to contest finalist has been mesmerizing.

“Anytime there is any sort of scholarship or program or contest, I try to tell my students about it, but these two just went above and beyond even my expectations when I told them about HUNCH,” Aughenbaugh said. “To watch them use the talents they have, the lessons they’ve learned and the tools we have to make this, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job.”

Yolanda Watford Simmons, a program manager with the NASA Langley Research Center, said there are 199 schools in 28 states participating in the NASA HUNCH program this year, so Warhill being named a finalist in its first year is an impressive achievement.

“This is the first year that any school from W-JCC has participated in HUNCH,” Simmons said. “There have been schools from York, Hampton and Poquoson that have been finalists before, but to see Warhill have a team named a finalist in their first year is very impressive.”

Simmons went on to talk about how programs such as this require students, and more importantly schools, that stress the importance of science education, and seeing local schools doing so well is encouraging to employers like NASA Langley.

“Programs like this, and the classrooms and tech that allow students to participate in them, is critical to encouraging the next generation of engineers, scientists and astronauts,” she said. “It’s always great to see schools encouraging students to contribute more to the hard sciences and as a local, I’m even happier to see more schools in the region really pushing for it.”

For teachers such as Aughenbaugh, seeing his students’ design perform well has driven home the importance of local STEM education, and shows that efforts by the division to get cutting edge equipment such as 3-D printers into classrooms can make a difference.

“The important question to ask is, ‘what do you want your students to be able to do?’, and having equipment like 3-D printers opens a lot of doors for these kids. It gives them the ability to take things from idea to prototype,” Aughenbaugh said.

“The division has been wonderful in supporting getting equipment like this in the classroom, and as these two students have shown, when you give the kids an opportunity to do something great, they’ll always surprise you.”

From here, the spare tools pouch they’ve designed will be reviewed by the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the students will get to tour alongside other finalist teams on April 15, and the top three designs will have a chance to be used by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

For Mowry and Manns, while they’ve got high hopes for their tool pouch, they’ve got ambitions elsewhere. Mowry has been accepted to Virginia Tech, where he plans to study biological systems engineering, and while Manns hopes to study engineering in college as well, for now, he wants to return to Warhill and come up with another design for HUNCH next year — hopefully as a defending champion.

“It’s a great opportunity to have, win or lose, not many high school kids get to say they’ve worked with NASA,” Manns said. “We’d love to win, we’d especially love to see astronauts using something we designed, but what made this a passion project is that we love engineering and we both want to stick with it.”

Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email sean.korsgaard@vagazette.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.

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