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Quest Academy students work with city to build informational solar system-themed walk

By Emily Anderson standard-Examiner - | May 24, 2021
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Quest Academy teacher Jennifer Jones, center, prepares to cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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Tayden Southichack, right, looks through 3D glasses at a rendering of the sun during the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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Quest Academy student Aaron Fisher gives a demonstration about asteroids at the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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Jennifer Jones, a teacher at Quest Academy Charter School, points toward the new Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven at its grand opening on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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A crowd listens during the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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Steven Smith, from NASA's STEM Educator Professional Development Collaborative, speaks at the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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Quest Academy teacher Jennifer Jones, center, cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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Quest Academy student Aaron Fisher gives a demonstration about asteroids at the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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Tayden Southichack, right, looks through 3D glasses at a rendering of the sun at the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

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Tayden Southichack looks through 3D glasses at a rendering of the sun at the grand opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students in West Haven on Saturday, May 23, 2021.

WEST HAVEN — Tayden Southichack, an elementary school student at Quest Academy Charter School, held 3D glasses over his face and peered at the sun — not the actual sun, though.

He, his younger sister and his mom, Taia Southichack, had come to a park located along 3100 South in West Haven on Saturday morning for the opening of the Solar System Trail for Astronomical Research by Students, or the S.S.T.A.R.S. trail.

“He’s really into space, that’s why we came today,” said Taia Southichack, gesturing to Tayden.

The 5.2-mile trail, which starts at the park and ends at the confluence of the Ogden and Weber rivers, features the sun, each of the eight planets plus Pluto, Ceres, the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt. Informative signs were erected along the West Haven Trail and what turns into the River Parkway Trail by the city, business sponsors and local schools, but the idea originated in a class of older students at Tayden’s school, Quest Academy.

Jennifer Jones teaches eighth graders about technology as it relates to space in a course dubbed “astro class,” and is also a solar system ambassador for NASA.

One day, she said, “we were talking about how we could do a fun activity, or what kinds of things we could do to encourage the community to learn about space and to understand some of the concepts we were learning in class.”

A student suggested using chalk to draw the solar system somewhere along the streets of West Haven. Jones loved the idea but dreamed of taking it a little further. So she called the city’s mayor earlier this year to get permission for the street art and bounce another idea off of her — a permanent art science installation.

“When Jen came to me with this project idea, it was about two months ago, and I said, ‘Wow, this year? I don’t know,'” Bolos said at the grand opening, but she gave the go ahead to begin working on it.

Under Jones’ direction, students in astro class began compiling information on each of the planets to accompany the huge renderings of them. Along the way, they planned activities for the grand opening.

“We would just go through each of these units and the kids would learn the information in the units, and then they would research it and figure out a project they could do that would display the information that they were learning,” Jones said.

As word about the trail spread around the school, students from other grades volunteered to pitch in, too. Brothers Andrew and Aaron Fisher, who are in ninth and sixth grades, respectively, were among those who got involved.

The Fishers sat at one of about a dozen tables Saturday morning helping teach community members about space and, at their station specifically, asteroids and planetary formation. At the front of the table sat six balls of play dough.

“We’re making meteors,” Aaron explained. “You get little pieces of play dough of two colors, which would represent cosmic dust, and your hand would be gravity. When you rub it over, it pulls all of the pieces of the dust together and forms a meteor.”

When he reaches eighth grade, Aaron plans to take Jones’ astro class. It’s one step toward his goal of becoming an astronaut and walking on the moon.

“I just think space is unique and there’s a lot that we don’t know yet, and I want to find that out,” he said.

To celebrate the grand opening, Jones also invited NASA employees, as well as a rep from the Space Foundation, to speak to the community. While most had to talk over Zoom, Steven Smith, from NASA’s STEM Educator Professional Development Collaborative, traveled to West Haven to teach, crack jokes and answer any questions the crowd came up with.

In the future, he told the audience, the agency’s goal is to make space a much less exclusive place. That will start with the first woman and person of color traveling to the moon within the next few years as part of the Artemis program. But as they embark on that mission, the public will be much more involved than in years past.

“NASA is creating lots of opportunities for you as the public and students and teachers in particular to actually participate in the missions that we’re doing,” Smith said, adding, “not just do a color sheet that looks like whatever, but actually help us answer some of the questions that we’re trying to figure out along the way to make it safer for the astronauts and make our missions more successful.”

When it comes to the trail, Jones has plans for the future, too. She said she wasn’t yet able to disclose next year’s project, but it will likely center around the same West Haven park.

“This trail is not going away, and neither is this event,” Jones said. “We’re planning to have an activity every year to introduce new items.”

Jennifer Jones, an eighth grade teacher at Quest Academy and solar system ambassador for NASA, was misidentified in a previous version of this article.

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