Serra High space team seeks to turn school into science destination

Gardena, CA - April 19: Dr. John Moran, President of Junipero Serra High School, introduces the Junipero Serra High School Space Team, shown at left, who participated in The International Space Station Program (ISSP). They are celebrated during a pep rally and being recognized overall for its achievements in Applied Math, Science and Engineering. The space science team launched an experiment aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-30 Rocket to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Junipero Serra High School is one of only nine high schools in the United States to achieve this. The Serra students are being lauded on the Senate Floor by Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and the school is being recognized overall for its achievements in Applied Math, Science and Engineering. Photo taken in Junipero Serra High School in Gardena Friday, April 19, 2024. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
John Moran, Serra High School president, introduces the school's Space Team, shown at left, who participated in The International Space Station Program, at a pep rally on Friday morning. They were being recognized overall for achievements in Applied Math, Science and Engineering. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

This month, Junipero Serra High School in Gardena had a pep rally to celebrate the achievements of what might be its least conventional team: its cutting-edge space squad.

Seniors Isaiah Dunn, Christopher Holbert, Travis Leonard, Anderson Pecot and Henry Toler, junior Keith Davie and freshman Jonathan Cruz walked their classmates through the 3D-printing experiment they sent into orbit on the International Space Station. Their classmates, meanwhile, did what they usually do at pep rallies — they cheered, they asked questions and, because it's a Catholic school, they prayed.

The team members aim to do more than just expand the frontier of knowledge. They're also hoping to make the school into a top place to study science.

"We get to be the pioneers," Leonard, 17, said. "We get to be the founders who started a new path for Serra students."

The team is on its second experiment conducted in the microgravity conditions of the space station. The current one was launched aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-30 Rocket from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on March 21 and docked with the International Space Station two days later.

The Serra High School space team take turns talking about their participation in The International Space Station program.

The experiment involves injecting a light-activated resin into a 3D printed mold of a Lego brick. The resin is then exposed to UV light to cause it to harden. The goal is to compare the physical and chemical properties of the object created in space with those of an identical object created on the ground.

Kenneth Irvine, the school's science department chair and the team's adviser, said the group used a 3D printer on campus to print the parts for the printer sent into space. "As our experiment is taking place in space, we're going to be running a parallel experiment down here."

The point of the project, said Holbert, is to one day enable the space station to 3D-print replacements for things that break on board, such a fasteners or tools, rather than having to ship them from earth.

"The goal is to get to a point where we can reliably 3D-print in space, which would save thousands of dollars per part," Holbert said.

The cost to launch an item on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has dropped from $10,000 per kilogram in 2009 to somewhere between $1,520 and $2,500 now, according to Georgetown University. But that's still expensive — even sending a pair of bolts weighing a tenth of a pound each would cost between $138 and $227 to fly into space. Hence the interest in making replacements in orbit.

"What's so exciting is that this is a 100% student-driven project that we believe will help NASA and private industries better understand space," Serra President John Moran said. "There aren't many other schools, let alone high schools, adding to our knowledge of space."

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Serra is one of nine national high schools, along with Santa Ana Calvary Chapel, taking part in the International Space Space Station program run through the Quest Institute for Quality Education of San José.

The school has received $50,000 in grants from the Ahmanson Foundation to participate in the program, Moran said. The school has also benefited from the use of the Makers Space, labs, materials and professional guidance from engineers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, given that most of the team members are part of the National Society of Black Engineers junior chapter there.

Last year, the space team studied germination rates of Wisconsin Fast Plants in space.

So far, there has been no word from NASA on how the 3D-printing experiment is going.

"We're all going to be waiting for updates," said Toler, whose role is to make sure the experiment can survive the rigors of space travel. "I just think to have something up in space right now is amazing, though."

What has impressed Irvine and Moran about the team is the members' ability to balance space work with a full slate of academic and extracurricular duties.

Holbert, who is headed to Loyola Marymount in the fall, is chess club president, a member of the school's soccer and gardening teams and is on the robotics and engineering clubs.

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Leonard, who is deciding between USC and Howard University, plays football and is a member of the Grace, gardening and robotic and coding clubs. He's also a school ambassador.

Toler plays basketball and golf, while Dunn, who will be playing American football in Italy next year, is involved in the school's literary review, is the writing club president and plays football, soccer and rugby.

Cruz, the lone freshman, is involved in coding and robotics.

"It's just an incredible group that is very dedicated to themselves and the work," Irvine said.

On Monday, the space team was honored on the California Senate floor in Sacramento by state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena).

Bradford noted that Serra is the first inner-city school whose students are predominantly non-white to participate in the International Space Station program.

“This is part of the school’s ongoing efforts to strengthen STEM education for all students, especially underserved students in South Los Angeles," Bradford said in a statement. "These students I am honoring are incredibly talented scholars, and it is a privilege to have them recognized by the California State Senate.”

While the team members are proud of their accomplishments in space, they've each mentioned the excitement knowing that they've piqued interest in STEM and spaces studies at Serra and in surrounding communities.

"We have some freshmen coming in next year just because of this program," Dunn said. "That used to be just for football and sports. Now we have students wanting to be part of our space program. It's incredible."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.