A sixth-grader at John Glenn Middle School has joined with three students from Belmont to reach the pinnacle of a worldwide art-and-science competition.
Hanna Suzuki and her teammates were one of 10 global winners, selected from 4,534 teams worldwide by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and nine other nations’ space agencies. That translates to 28,286 participants from 162 countries.
The NASA Space Apps Challenge is described as “an innovation incubation and civic engagement program” in which the agency invites participants to develop innovative solutions to some 30 different challenges. Hanna and her friends entered the arts and technology category.
“I was in the car coming home from school when I heard the news that we were in the top 10 in the world,” Hanna said. “It was quite hard to process.” She added humbly, “Just from the local competition, I did not think we would win first place and move on to the worlds. I thought there were many more talented people.”
“Our team picked up the Webb Origami Design Challenge,” Hanna related. That directs competitors to “create origami artwork that looks like the James Webb Space Telescope and showcase Webb as a technological and design marvel using an ‘arts-meet-science’ approach.”
The James Webb telescope was launched on December 24, after two decades of development. The $10 billion mission, an international partnership, is designed to explore every phase of cosmic history. Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists also expect to use its more advanced capabilities to study the atmospheres of distant planets.
The connection to origami—the traditional art of paper folding—is not random. According to NASA, “for the telescope to fit into a rocket, it must fold up, with parts designed to unfold once deployed in space. This origami pattern of the Webb primary mirror highlights the elegant engineering and artistic inspiration behind the telescope.”
Hanna and her fellow students, in the project summary, announced that they “LOVE, and are good at, origami crafting” and recognize the paper-folding resemblance in the telescope’s deployment.
“We made origami versions of the telescope and integrated them with small computers (credit-card size) called Raspberry Pi, cameras, and GPS receivers,” Hanna continued. “We wanted our models to actively do something, not only viewed passively.”
“Our goal is to have our ‘computerized’ origami models do what the real telescope does — take pictures, track the current position, measure sunlight intensity and temperature.”
Hanna said she learned of the opportunity from her father, Jun Suzuki, “and I thought it was interesting.” She recruited the rest of her team — Misaki Tatsumi in 11th grade, Takeshi Tatsumi, Grade 9; and Yuto Yashiro, a fifth-grader, all of Belmont—through a workshop they attend “on coding and all kinds of robotics and scientific stuff. I gathered people that were interested and had the time to do it together.”
According to the project summary they submitted, “Our apps can take pictures with cameras periodically (every 30 seconds, for example) or when a push-button is pressed. They keep track of the current device location with GPS receivers. They also upload captured photos and location information to a cloud database so the uploaded data can be browsed through the Internet.”
The four competitors had to accomplish everything in three days, on their screens. They called their project Jimmy in the Box. The deployed telescope, the team wrote, “looks like a Jack-in-the-box for us. So, we decided to replace Jack with Jimmy for our project name, respecting Mr. James Webb, who supported many science projects at NASA.” Webb was director of NASA in the 1960s.
Hanna promoted the project website (https://github.com/HSSBoston/jimmy-in-the-box), which “provides instruction videos, circuit diagrams, and ready-to-run programs. Anyone interested can immediately learn how to reproduce our origami crafts and telescope models.”
Hanna acknowledged the age differential among the four teammates, but explained that “it was perfect – because that was part of our challenge.” She said she was more experienced in “computer stuff,” other kids in the “art stuff,” and when you put that together, it was art and science. We all had our expertise and we combined that. I don’t think the age gap really mattered”
The telescope is in space and the contest has been decided, but Hanna is still thinking in the future tense. “Now we want to improve our model even more—maybe teaching other people about how we made it,” she said. “I had a lot of fun making it. Our project could inspire many others in the same generation who are interested in arts, technology, or both.”
Hanna is 12 but is no technology novice. “My father is a computer scientist and he introduced me when I was little,” she related. Early on, she attended sessions at Einstein’s Workshop in Burlington, learning the simple code Scratch, which consists of blocks. “As I grew older I learned to read and write code and use more advanced types of coding.”
“The project gave a huge inspiration to Hanna and her teammates,” Jun Suzuki commented. “I am happy to see her watch NASA’s website every day to check out (and even worry about) Webb’s deployment process!”
“I do a lot of projects at home just for fun, and sometimes I help my father explain when he’s teaching,” she related. Hanna also studies piano at the New England Conservatory and plays some tennis.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763