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MHS to partner with Blue Origin for Rocketry program, Hunter Gym may live to see another day

June 15th, 2017 under Top Stories
(Staff photo by NICK WINCHESTER) From left, board members Frank “Buddy” Knight and Theresa Maria Nunez, Marfa High School Robotics teacher Rob Crowley, Blue Origin engineers, Brent Justice and Eduardo Seyffert.

(Staff photo by NICK WINCHESTER)
From left, board members Frank “Buddy” Knight and Theresa Maria Nunez, Marfa High School Robotics teacher Rob Crowley, Blue Origin engineers, Brent Justice and Eduardo Seyffert.

By NICK WINCHESTER

nick@bigbendnow.com

MARFA — Marfa High School students will work alongside rocket industry experts from Blue Origin this fall in a unique rocketry program, board members heard in a regular meeting held Monday.

Blue Origin, whose tagline reads, “Earth, in all its beauty, is just the starting place. We are of blue origin, and here is where it begins,” is a leading aerospace and spaceflight company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. As well as offices in Kent, Washington, Cape Canaveral, Florida, Blue Origin has a facility here in West Texas, just north of Van Horn.

Although their mission is to one day get more people into space, “so that we humans can better continue exploring the solar system,” a number of engineers will first travel from Van Horn to develop and build four rockets with 30 Marfa students.

The rockets will be 5-foot tall, Wildman Junior rockets, with the potential to reach 8,000-feet of altitude, reaching speeds 500 mph, and will land via parachutes. Sometime before the end of the year, a community launch event will take place showing off the work that students and Blue Origin engineers have worked on.

Marfa’s robotics teacher, Rob Crowley, described the partnership as a win-win situation for both Marfa ISD and Blue Origin. While kids will gain knowledge of a fascinating and increasingly vital science, Blue Origin will plant the seed of inspiration in what they hope can be future rocket engineers.

Crowley hopes to enlist four teachers to lead the four teams of students.

Marfa ISD began its relationship with the company two years ago. Two weeks ago, Blue Origin engineers who had been working closely with Crowley found out the news that their rocketry program had been given the green light by the company’s upper management.

During Crowley’s presentation, which included a Skype call with Blue Origin engineers Eduardo Seyffert and Brent Justice, board members were shown a YouTube video of Blue Origin’s “New Shepard” vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) booster rocket, which made history in 2015 as the first vertical landing following an unmanned suborbital test flight that reached space.

Board members also heard the ambitions Rob Crowley holds of making Marfa one of the first school districts to offer robotics grades 1 through 12.

“I’m creating a STEM/ Robotics vision,” Crowley told board members. STEM, standing for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is being pushed successfully at Marfa ISD. Crowley’s vision for the school to become a STEM subject leader was well received. Board members noted how it will help improve student attendance and retention, as well as attract students to come to the school. Industry related to the STEM subjects is also a vital area of employment.

Also on the night’s agenda was an update on Hunter Gym by local architect Mike Green, who talked about the old adobe gym’s condition and reiterated its uniqueness as a historical building. Currently the Hunter Gym is suffering bad moisture damage and mold under the maple wood flooring. On top of this, the hall is filled with excess classroom desks, while boxes of files fill the bleachers. Green and Crowley outlined the process which will need to take place to dry-out the building, as well as exterior earth works and improved drainage to avoid rain water running off onto the walls of the gym. In the future, board members were told, the building could be restored to its former glory. The Hunter Gym is “out of sight and out of mind,” right now said Crowley.

To further his STEM vision, Crowley also proposed to the board his idea to create a STEM Academy in the restored Hunter Gym, where a computer science lab could be based and students in the Robotics and Rocketry programs could work.

Mayor Ann Marie Nafziger also addressed the school board to update members on the Read Marfa program, in which more than 80 community volunteers read with students from Marfa Elementary. In her role as coordinator of Read Marfa, Nafziger also told board members of the success of the High School book club, which involved eight students who received and read a number of novels of their choice donated by the community. Read Marfa is a volunteer-run program dedicated to encouraging and inspiring young readers, while improving literacy levels across Marfa ISD.

The program has been very successful, Nafziger told board members. “It’s been so rewarding to be a part of it,” she added.

Board President Katie Price Fowlkes echoed Nafziger, adding that it was a great stress release for her to leave work once a week and come read to the kids. In total, Read Marfa volunteers have given 450 hours of their time to reading with kids.

Going forward, Nafziger said she’d like to continue the High School reading club, while expanding the elementary tutoring program. Read Marfa recently secured $25,000 in funding from the Stillwater Foundation.

“Kids aren’t always reading the books they want,” Superintendent Oscar Aguero said, “and this program really gives them the pleasure of reading.”

Board members also heard an update to the proposed 2017-2018 budget from Aguero. Although total revenues cannot be finalized until July 25, the projected figures look reasonably good for the district, at $700,000 more from the appraisal district than last year.

Board members also agreed to raise Industrial Arts Teacher Josh Steinberg’s stipend to match what Rob Crowley receives for robotics, after Frank “Buddy” Knight brought up the discrepancy. Board President Fowlkes also requested that stipends be set aside for the four teachers who will work eight days on weekends over the fall semester as part of the new rocketry program.

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