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O’Connell team earns spot in NASA event

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A team of students from Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington were awarded a coveted spot in a NASA leadership event in February due to their submission to the 2020 NASA App Development Challenge (ADC). The news and accolades were announced during a livestreamed awards program Jan. 8.

O’Connell students Alex Janninck, Daniel Kippenhan, Elaine Ly  and Claire Toia, alongside Sevginaz Gurleyici from the Madeira School in McLean, teamed up virtually to code an application for the NASA challenge. The program seeks to engage the next generation of scientists and engineers in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman on the moon by 2024.

The team’s challenge was to develop an application that could navigate the terrain of the lunar south pole. They needed to visualize the moon’s surface, establish a reliable and efficient pathfinding algorithm between landing and destination points, and identify ten communication checkpoints along the given route. To this end, they were given multiple data files, which contained millions of data points for processing, and seven weeks to complete the challenge. There was no specified programming language or method required to execute the application, which allowed for creativity and exploration. 

O’Connell’s team encountered and overcame numerous obstacles within the challenge. In response to time management, the team coordinated group chats, schedules and aimed to divide the workload evenly. Additionally, they implemented a mentorship program, as some members were inexperienced with the Python programming language. Team members coded in real time using "Code With Me," a newly released Integrated Development Environment (IDE) plugin that allowed for greater collaboration.  

 "I’m appreciative of this learning opportunity," said Janninck . "Not only did I learn how to lead a team, but I also learned how to manipulate large data sets — 6.5 million numbers, in this case. This project made me realize that I can combine my passions for aerospace engineering and programming into a possible career: writing simulation software for the aerospace industry." 

For Kippenhan, the experience exceeded his expectations. "I was surprised that our app made it past the first step in the grading process, and I didn’t know what to say when we were selected as one of the winning teams," he said. "I am happy with the final result and how we worked together as a team."

 "When I first agreed to this project, I never thought that we would have more women than men on the team," said Toia. "Since there’s always talk about getting more women into STEM, it was nice to see girls my age interested in engineering. I love that I was able to be part of a strong team that worked well together."

During the awards program, the O’Connell team was lauded for their strengths in both the coding and noncoding aspects of the challenge, utilizing different platforms to create a successful app. They eagerly anticipate NASA’s culminating event, where chosen schools across the country will gather virtually to witness the impact of their contributions and engage with NASA leadership.

"Before the team even knew the full parameters of expectations for the contest, they were ‘all in’ for a creative design challenge about the Earth’s moon," said O’Connell engineering teacher Melissa Pore. "Through sheer curiosity, and in the end, perseverance, these students churned out multiple ideas and various strategies as they encountered road bumps and hurdles before creating the ultimate interface for astronaut training and lunar navigation intended for the Artemis mission astronauts. I am so proud of them."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021