Reaching for the Stars Starts with a Strong Ground Crew

Jessica Meir declared in first grade that she wanted to be an astronaut – and she meant it. Meir made history with the first all-female space walk from the International Space Station nearly 25 years after graduating from Caribou High School. While it may seem to have been a certainty in the rear view, getting to the ISS wasn’t always a sure thing. Meir was denied acceptance to the space program on her first application. Perseverance paid off and Meir eventually became the astronaut she had always envisioned.

When Caribou High School principal Travis Barnes learned in January that Meir was likely to be going to space, he wanted his students to get involved. No one knew then that Dr. Meir would be making history as a member of the first all-female spacewalk, but Barnes knew his students had a rare opportunity to participate in a space talk. He began the monumental work required to secure a NASA “uplink” to provide students in RSU 39 the opportunity to speak to Meir in real time.

Being an astronaut’s alma mater is not reason enough to be accepted. The application had to demonstrate extensive support and involvement of the whole community and significant impact on student learning and aspirations. Developing the application for NAS meant Barnes and his teachers had to develop a myriad of opportunities to both inspire and support RSU 39 students to dream big in a small town. The RSU 39 ground crew had to include staff, students, and community to meet the rigorous requirements set by NASA. The space talk was only part of the big day.

Assembling the Ground Crew: Staff

Middle school teachers Kim Barnes, Susan Keaton, Arik Jepson, Twyla Learnard, Cheryl Pelletier, Jennifer Crawford and high school teachers Shannon Sleeper, Jessica Bell, Kayla Brown, Peg Conologue, Jessica Doucette worked with students through an inquiry process to develop a deeper understanding of the International Space Station, the current mission and tasks, issues facing the space program, and Jessica Meir’s personal journey into space. Motivated by the opportunity to speak to Meir, students worked to review and revise the questions forwarded to NASA. See those questions here.

Assembling the Ground Crew: Community

CHS Alum

CHS alum visited the school and provided students other lenses into career development and goal setting. While Jessica Meir stayed focused on her goal throughout her life, many others meandered to find their pathways and develop careers, some never considered or even known. Dustin Damboise and Jamie Corrigan created a trivia game with facts about their high school, college, and work experiences, asking students to match the facts with the person. With more than two majors listed and neither matching either job title provided, Damboise and Corrigan demonstrated to students how exploration and an open mind can lead to identifying a gratifying career. CHS alums Dan McCormack (’91), CEO of InterMed, and Darcie McElwee (’91), Assistant United States Attorney, also shared their “space walks,” encouraging students to take advantage of different opportunities, such as an internship or the military. McCormack and McElwee stressed how perseverance learned at Caribou High School shaped their journeys to career success. In total, more than a dozen graduates of CHS returned to the launch pad to support student aspirations.

Caribou and All of Maine

Other activities during the day demonstrated the importance of staying healthy despite rigorous work, sessions that focused on health and wellness, and sessions to explore potential career paths in the medical field. Denis St. Peter, PE President and CEO of CES, Inc. as well as a 1986 CHS graduate, brought three engineers with him to expose students to new experiences in the engineering world including: Game of Drones with Josh Maker (Survey Technician, Surveying Division); Watershed Down with Justine Drake (Engineer, Engineering Division); Go with the Flow with Andrea Dickinson (EI, Senior Project Engineer, Environmental Division). Students learned about the science behind protective gear, research about creating jet fuel from wood, coding, outdoor survival and much more thanks to support from agencies such as the Caribou Fire Department, Maine Emergency Management, and the Maine Forest Service. [insert photo here?] See a complete list of all the companies, agencies, organizations who were part of the RSU 39 Ground Crew.

Blast Off: Uplink with the International Space Station

Middle and high school students assembled in the auditorium of the Caribou Performing Arts Center as NASA prepared the uplink. Selected students presented questions directly to Dr. Meir. Dr. Meir was appropriately impressed by the demonstration of understanding of her work on the ISS and of other issues regarding technology and the environment as well as Dr. Meir’s personal journey to the ISS.

Students in grades K-5 remained in their respective buildings, remotely watching Jessica Meir talk to students at Caribou High School. Their day included student choice STEM activities led by classroom teachers designed to develop student creativity and problem-solving skills. Some of the sessions included Sphero rockets, designing space helmets, virtual reality, catapult execution, launching straw rockets, and trying astronaut ice cream.

A tremendous amount of time and planning was involved in making this day such an overwhelming success.  The “ground crews” ensured everyone who participated had a blast!

This article was written by Maine DOE English Language Arts Specialist, Morgan Dunton in collaboration with school staff from Caribou schools. The article is part of the Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign. For ideas or submissions for Maine Schools Sharing Success, email Rachel at