iSPACE nonprofit allows students to explore space, science careers

How would your kids like to go to space?
How would your kids like to go to space?
Posted at 7:57 AM, Jan 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-28 07:57:06-05

SHARONVILLE, Ohio -- A voice comes over the loudspeakers.

“Alert code: 6-602. Mission Control to Challenger, we have detected that you have an oxygen leak. You have approximately 10 minutes of breathable air left before the crew is lost!”

The flight team gathers around the live video feed from which Mission Control walks the crew through how to build the apparatus that will stop the leak and save the lives of the astronauts aboard the spacecraft.

This might sound like a scene from a NASA training facility, but it’s part of a challenge within a simulated mission to space at iSPACE, an educational nonprofit dedicated to bringing science, technology, engineering, and math -- commonly called STEM -- programs to Greater Cincinnati.

Started in 2001, iSPACE provides a multitude of programs and activities for nearly all ages -- from robotics competitions, rocketry camps and coding classes to coordinating FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Tech Challenge. The program also provides classroom resources for educators.

iSPACE’s mission is to ensure every child has multiple, positive, STEM experiences, regardless of the child’s financial background. Scholarships are offered for students who want to participate but cannot afford entry fees.

The group also puts on events for the public. Last October, iSPACE partnered with NASA to provide a video conference with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The small staff of about 10 full-time employees does a lot on a budget of about $863,000 for 2017 that comes mainly from grants, program fees and donations.

To meet the growing demand for the organization’s programs over the last few years, iSPACE moved into a larger building at the Scarlet Oaks Campus in Sharonville in September.

iSPACE’s impact has been deep and far reaching. More than 35,000 students were involved just in 2016.

The cornerstone program offered is the iSPACE iMISSION, a simulated space mission to colonize the moon that gives students the opportunity to build leadership, communication and collaborative skills, all while engaging in hands on science.

Robots as part of the iMISSION

During these simulations, each student has a specific role. Students go through an application process for those roles before coming to iSPACE. Each role contributes to the lunar research lab's mission.

Jobs include running mission control, finding a landing site for the spacecraft, tracking storms that could interfere with flights, using robots to complete mission objectives and taking biomed readings of fellow astronauts.

All students participate in their specific job, and all the jobs are hands-on. As a former science teacher, I can say that it is by far some of the most enriching and engaging science program you will ever see.

The class that was there when I visited were fifth-graders from Brookwood Elementary School.

The class’ teacher, Betsie Ostermyer of West Chester, who has been taking her classes on iMISSIONs for the past two years, couldn’t say enough good things about the experience for the students.

“It fits everything. I have more of a language arts background, and this builds on all the skills we try to teach the students: speaking, communication, collaboration, critical thinking,” Ostermyer said.

These skills are essential to compete for today’s jobs. But the program is also engaging for the students.

“It makes the students want to bring more of what iSPACE does back to the classroom,” Ostermyer said.

So much so that the sixth-graders who went on the trip last year were visibly jealous they didn’t get to go that day, the teachers said.

iSPACE was founded by executive director Linda Neenan. The barriers she faced when she tried to get into the STEM field as a young woman inspired her to start the organization.

“My parents were immigrants from Italy and had no education. They had a very strange daughter: a really good student who wanted to go to college,” Neenan said. “They had no idea how to do that.”

Neenan had a passion for science and, in high school, came across a flier for a scholarship to General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), at the plant in which her father worked.

When Neenan brought the flier to school and said she wanted to become an engineer, her guidance counselor told her that those jobs weren’t for girls. Instead, Neenan became a math teacher; however, she never forgot the challenges she faced.

“I’ve carried that (story) with me all my life,” Neenan said. “I was going to tell kids that no one was going to put up barriers for you.”

After several years of teaching in Michigan, Neenan moved to Cincinnati, eventually working at the Sycamore Foundation providing money for STEM programs. However, she wanted to make a deeper impact.

iSPACE Founder Linda Neenan

“I saw how poorly our students across the country were performing in science, and I thought that this is where I wanted to focus my efforts,” Neenan said.

So Neenan got a group of scientists, educators and engineers together to discuss how they could get students more excited about science. When she asked how they got into their field, nearly everyone’s answer came down to a person or experience that inspired them to focus their career in a STEM field.

So together the team researched, took road trips and set out to recreate those experiences for students. Eventually a plan and money were put together, and iSPACE was born. Sixteen years later, the organization is bigger than ever and continues to grow.

This fall, iSPACE invited several alumni from the first 2004 camp back to see how their work as influenced students who participate in their programs. Most of those students have gone on into STEM careers, proof that the work of Neenan and her dedicated team is having a real impact.

As iSPACE grows and settles into its new home, their commitment to excellent programing continues.

“We will never compromise the quality of the experience,” Neenan said.

If you are interested in participating in the iSPACE’s programs or would like to donate, please click here.

Chris Anderson is a local science educator, aspiring science communicator, and founder of the blog