By Special to the EagleHerald

PESHTIGO—Students in the Peshtigo Elementary Learning Center (PELC), last week, had the opportunity to speak with Mark Vande Hei, an astronaut currently working on the International Space Station.

Mission Control of NASA worked with Peshtigo’s technology team to coordinate a half-hour of live questions and answers from PELC to the International Space Station on Wednesday.

Vande Hei is a retired Army colonel who was a combat engineer and later a professor at West Point. Vande Hei is also the cousin of Peshtigo’s fourth-grade teacher, Jodi VanVooren. He was selected by NASA in 2009 and already completed a six-month trip to the Space Station.

For his second trip to the International Space Station, “Astronaut Mark” as Peshtigo students called him, will be spending a year in space.

Much work had to be done in advance to coordinate between NASA Mission Control and the Peshtigo technology team of Larry Schultz and Dave Bloch.

“Dave and I loved participating in ‘Bulldogs in Space.’ The experience was exhilarating. We never thought we would be working with Mission Control at NASA to troubleshoot and collaborate about connectivity,” Schultz said. He explained that it took several trial runs between the district and NASA.

“The end result was a success and definitely a career highlight for information technology,” Schultz said.

Principal Kate Willett and associate principal John Bell also helped set up the event. Willett facilitated the question and answer session.

“I believed this event really showcased our students’ natural curiosity and put a smile on all our faces. Despite technical difficulties with the visual feed which were beyond our control, I’m very grateful for the crisp, clear audio we were all able to listen to,” Willett said.

Peshtigo students have been exploring a number of NASA developments. They’ve been learning about space exploration and what life is like as an astronaut. Teacher Jennifer Barker encouraged students to learn more about satellites.

Fifth-grade student Dominic Burns shared what he learned about the space race, “when the USSR and the US were competing to show which country was stronger and smarter.”

Students related the space race to sports and competition. “This was such a good way for students to experience something new and gain more background knowledge to pull from as they read,’’ teacher Melissa Sherman said.

In preparation for the live Q & A event, students researched topics they personally found most interesting.

“Some students were researching black holes, while others learned more about the sun and stars. Still others were amazed how the audio connection could travel so far with only a 45-second delay in live communication,” according to VanVooren.

VanVooren’s students watched videos about life at the space station.

“The ones they were most interested in were how to shower and use the bathroom in space. Another interesting one was how to play tennis in space,” she said, adding, “I think they have even more questions now than they did before the interview.”

Selected students were allowed to directly question Vande Hei.

“It’s amazing how bringing community members into the classroom contributes to curiosity and learning,” sixth-grade teacher Loretta Rich said.

“Kids want to know more and more and I anticipate this will inspire them to learn new things,” Sherman said. “The kids who were selected to ask questions were all smiles when they returned to class. The rest of us listened to the questions and answers and could hear cheers coming from the other classrooms as students would hear the voice of a classmate.”

It was a rare opportunity for Peshtigo students to speak live with an astronaut in outer space.

“I never thought I would talk to an astronaut one day,” fourth-grader Adam Falkenberg said.

Meanwhile, student Landon Klug beamed, “This is honestly the best day of my life!”

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by the Peshtigo School District.