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Innovative CASA Program Reinvents Education, Pushes Students to Stretch Skills

Columbia Public Schools

Three high school students in space suits huddled around a beaker in a back room of the CASA building behind Hickman High School. As they worked to dissolve sodium carbonate in water, one of the students pulled out his hand to reveal it had been covered in fake blood by the club's moulage team.

The student started groaning in feigned agony, and other astronauts called for medical officers. 

Two students in white space suits rushed into the room. They applied saline solution to the injured student's hand and wrapped it in gauze after instructing him to sit on a table that resembled the ones in doctors offices.

"Have you learned to wear gloves?" one astronaut asked.

Successfully taking care of the injured astronaut meant the students in CASA — the Columbia Aeronautics and Space Association — were one step closer to completing mission 3018: Operation Phoenix Rising. CASA is a co-curricular group under the umbrella of aerospace that runs a weeklong, student-run space simulation every year. The simulation took place last week.

Matt Leuchtmann, the program coordinator for CASA and a K-12 gifted education specialist at Battle High School, said that although CASA operates under the umbrella of aerospace, students can pursue a variety of interests in the program. There are students who focus on rocket science, orbital mechanics, first aid, engineering, communications and programming. This year, 63 students are enrolled: 53 boys and 10 girls.

This is Leuchtmann's first year as program coordinator. He said that although participation in the program has declined in the past 10 years or so, Columbia Public Schools has recently recommitted, including a total remodel of CASA's building. Demolition will begin Monday, and construction is scheduled to start July 1.

Leuchtmann said his vision is for the CASA building to be a "kind of state-of-the-art technological maker space," where students have the tools to do more precision engineering. 

"The goal there is to kind of bring it under a new umbrella, where we let kids know this isn't just aerospace engineering, that this is much more," Leuchtmann said. "We can direct you to your passion, and through your passion we can help you learn to problem-solve in real-world situations."

Andrew Gillis, a senior at Hickman, is the student director of the program. He's been involved in CASA since he was in fifth grade. Both of Gillis' brothers were also involved in CASA and contributed to its systems. 

"Everything in this building is practically student made," Gillis said. "This system was designed and programmed by students over the years. That's why it uses four to five different languages and stuff like that."

As students become more advanced, some take on leadership roles and become what CASA calls "ninjas." The ninjas' job is create problems for mission control and the astronauts on board. The problems they create are called simulated on-board missions, or SOBEs. The acid burn on one of the astronauts is an example of a medical SOBEs created by the ninjas.

"It's problem-solving in real time," Leuchtmann said. "So the students are introduced to the concepts throughout the year, and then they need to use what they've learned during mission week to actually make sure that they conduct a safe launch and a safe return."

Although most of CASA's participants are from Hickman, 16 students are from Battle High School and three are from Rock Bridge High School. Additionally, four middle schoolers are participating this year. Students from surrounding districts have also participated in the past. Leuchtmann said CASA started in 1988 at Rock Bridge under the guidance of Pat Daugherty, making this CASA's 30th mission.

"Students set up a mock station in the gym and they — as an after-school club — they came in and kind of demonstrated the power of this type of learning, and the district supported it," Leuchtmann said. 

In the early 1990s, Jim Kyd brought CASA to Hickman, where they set up shop in an old automotive building. Since then, Leuchtmann said, it has continued to evolve. In the future, he said, he wants the whole building filled with students from middle schools and other high schools.

CASA has been housed in the Hickman building for 28 years. Ceiling tiles are painted to commemorate past missions, and the entire setup is a result of years of students building on each other's work.

The program allows students to take the skills they've learned in the classroom and apply it through a variety of challenges. Gillis said the program is working to refocus on teaching practical skills that can give students a jumpstart in the field they want to pursue. 

One example of this is the public affairs office, where students organize outreach events, write newsletters and even prepare mock press releases that address topics such as the death of an astronaut. Emelia Knarr, the director of the public affairs office, has been working with her team to generate mock news for the students in the simulation, with the goal of growing their news judgment skills. 

"It’s really exciting in this time, when we’re in this innovation-based economy," Leuchtmann said of the program. "We need to teach these students the skills to be successful in the gig-based economy. We need to reinvent education; this is where we need to grow."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.