Michelle Lucas promotes STEM/STEAM through space with nonprofit Higher Orbits

In our distracting world, it can be difficult to get students interested in STEM topics. Higher Orbits founder and president Michelle Lucas believes studying human spaceflight can help change that.

“Higher Orbits is a nonprofit that uses space as a launch pad to get kids engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math,” Lucas said.

The company’s guiding principle is that space inspires.

The current centerpiece of Higher Orbits’ work is the Go For Launch! program, which sees teams of student participants engaging in a series of STEM- and space-oriented collaborative activities. During Go For Launch!, which is a multi-day program, students also get to hear talks by space experts, including astronauts, other space-related professionals, scientists, and engineers. All this culminates in a project for which the teams each design an experiment intended to be conducted in space and present them to a panel of judges. Winning projects are then launched to the International Space Station. (Per Higher Orbits’ website, sometimes the winning project of one event will be launched, and sometimes several winning projects from a series of several events will be placed in further competition with one another to be launched; it’s somewhat dependent on the events’ funding.)

As an example, Lucas noted one winning team had some un-hatched bees launched into space, where they are being monitored for their reactions to a zero-gravity environment, having never experienced life on earth before.

“The students are evaluating how they adapt,” Lucas said.

The hope is that exposing students, hands-on, to the wide variety of interesting jobs, activities , and subjects that exist under the STEM umbrella can foster lifelong passions for them, a possibly even future vocations.

“We can’t fill all the STEM careers out there today in the U.S.,” Lucas said.

Prior to starting Higher Orbits, Lucas worked for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, doing flight control for the International Space Station as well as astronaut instruction. During her time there, she sometimes had the opportunity to meet student visitors to the center.

“I fell in love with working with students,” Lucas said, “so I pivoted.”

From there she launched Higher Orbits in 2013. For her, the greatest challenge involved in getting the company going was in learning the business acumen necessary to doing it well, and securing the funds necessary for the (not cheap!) process of sending experiments into space. With time, Lucas said she has learned how set goals at a reasonable scale.

“My prior background prepared me for being adaptable and flexible,” Lucas said, just as STEM education can do for students across the country.

Michelle Lucas will present at 1 Million Cups Fargo on July 25, 2018 and at TEDxFargo on July 26, 2018. For more information on Higher Orbits, visit higherorbits.org.